Here is a rundown of last night’s episode of Tudor Monastery Farm based on my scribbled notes…
It is September at the farm, the beginning of autumn and shorter days, The team are preparing for the end of the farming year. They need to make provisions for the winter. They’ve harvested and stored the pea crop and now it’s time to bring the animals down to the farm from their summer grazing and to harvest the barley. A bad harvest could mean malnutrition and even famine.
The monasteries owned vast amounts of agricultural land and most land was open (this was before land was enclosed) so tenant farmers were given strips of land. Ruth comments that school summer holidays are where they are because of the farming calendar, because students were needed for harvesting. Harvesting was back-breaking work and Tom comments that he is having to sharpen his tools frequently. Once it’s cut, the barley is bound into sheaves. The men did the reaping and the women did the binding. Every last grain of barley is precious and Ruth explains the practice of “gleaning”, collecting every last little bit of the crop. If it rained then the crop could be ruined. The barley sheaves are “stooked”, i.e. set upright in the fields to dry and this meant that if it did rain before it was collected then the rain would run off it.
The barley needs to be stored and Tom and Peter are collecting gorse to put as a layer at the bottom of the barn, under the barley, to raise the barley off the ground and to protect it from mice and rats.
It was crucial to prepare meat for winter and the essential ingredient for this was salt. Salt was a valuable commodity, it was important for trade and it was essential for life. It was part of the cash economy because everyone had to buy it. The majority of salt was imported from France or Spain, but there were brine springs in the north of England, places where spring water ran through rock salt. This brine was then boiled to produce salt. A woman who made salt was called a “waller” and she worked in a “walling land” or “walling yard”. Flat bottomed lead pans were stood in furnaces. Lead is a soft metal, so a frame supported the weight of the pan and the water. These pans were left boiling in these walling yards 24 hours a day and serious boiling was needed to turn the brine into salt, which formed on the surface as a skin. Once the brine has been boiling for four hours, Ruth starts to extract the salt. The first “scum” is the best quality salt, but only if it is clean and pure. Wallers used proteins to remove dirt and impurities in the salt, with a favourite being ox blood because it rose to the surface as it cooked and bound the dirt and impurities together making them easy to skim off the surface. Ruth uses egg yolks instead and it works. Prices for salt varied according to its colour and purity, so it was vital to produce as pure a salt as possible. Ruth uses a wicker cone to form her salt and this allowed any remaining brine to drain off.
Tudor farmers made provisions for their animals to survive over the winter but they had to get their animals back to the farm first. Tom and Peter are driving their flock of sheep back to the farm, and these flocks could have numbered in the thousands. The 1530s were a turning point in sheep farming because of the dissolution of the monasteries – land was sold, flocks were broken up and common land was enclosed. This changed farming enterprises and the landscape for ever.
Autumn was the time for slaughtering animals for meat for the winter. Ruth is preserving some beef with the salt that she has produced. She cuts the meat into equal sized portions, crumbles salt from the salt cone and rubs the salt on every surface of the meat to dehydrate it. The meat is then ready to store in brine (water boiled with salt and herbs) and it is left in brine for three days before being removed and packed in a barrel of dry salt. Pieces of meat would be removed from the barrel and rinsed when required for cooking.
It is Michaelmas, the feast day of St Michael, Protector of the Church, and Ruth is cooking goose, the traditional meat for that time of year. Ruth comments that although we think of goose as a Christmas meat, it was actually in season at that time of year because the geese had been fattened up on stubble land after harvesting. It was customary for people to celebrate after the last of the barley had been collected and this celebration was known as Harvest Home, a thanksgiving for God’s help with the harvest. Professor Ronald Hutton joins the team for the last day of harvesting and he explains the importance of the harvest. He comments that Bloody Flux, a disease common at that time, was actually caused by malnutrition because when the body was completely famished it suffered an intestinal haemorrhage. Famine was what happened when there was a bad harvest so people celebrated a good harvest, they gave thanks for their farming success. The team picks a “maiden” to be the Harvest Queen and she is carried on top of the barley cart. The team and workers then play a traditional game with the men carrying barley sheaves and trying to get into the barn which is guarded by the women holding buckets of water to pour all over them. The game is followed by a feast, which was a reward for the harvest workers. Harvest Home marked the end of the agricultural year. Winter was ahead, with its shorter days, dark days, cold weather and boredom.
The team have completed their farming obligations for the monastery, but the monasteries were also hubs for craft and commercial activities. Skilled stone masons were in high demand in Tudor times and Peter meets a stone mason, Pascal, who is doing work for Gloucester Cathedral. Pascal explains that stone masonry is a bit like football, either you’re good at it or you’re not, either you have the skills at wielding the pick axe or you haven’t. The stone mason had one main tool: the pick axe. Building work was done in the spring and summer months with stone straight from the quarry. This stone, being fresh, was softer and easier to cut due to its “sap” and then it could set over winter once it was in place. Tudor stone masons completed a seven year apprenticeship and this system still operates today. The stone mason’s patron was the church, so things became difficult for them after the dissolution of the monasteries.
Monasteries were also places of refuge. They looked after the sick in the community and had infirmaries for the sick and elderly. These infirmaries disappeared with the dissolution of the monasteries and were eventually replaced with social and civic hospitals.
Ruth is picking herbs from the monastery herb garden, medicinal herbs to use over winter. Medical knowledge was mostly limited to herbs and folklore remedies and Ruth explains that from 1500 the Renaissance brought about a rediscovery of Greek texts on plants and herbs, and that “the botany of this age was the science of the day”. Medicine was based on the four humours with the idea that the body was made up of earth (blood), water (phlegm), fire (yellow bile) and air (black bile). The threat of fatal disease was ever present and the average life expectancy was 35. Herbs were used for treatments and were prepared for winter storage. Ruth is mixing hyssop with honey. Hyssop was an important medicinal plant in the 1500s and was seen as hot/dry, ideal for balancing diseases of phlegm (cold and wet). The hyssop and honey would be mixed with hot water for a remedy.
Monasteries were large complexes with gardens, dormitories and places of prayer, and had many tiled floors, which were costly. Peter meets Karen, an expert on clay floor tiles, to learn how to make tiles. Karen cuts clay with wire and then a tile frame is used to shape the tile. The tile is then decorated using a stamp. The stamp used features a design from 1536 from Hailes Abbey – a fleur de lys design which symbolises the trinity, a popular theme. The stamp is pressed on the clay tile and then the sunken areas are decorated with “slip”, a white clay. Excess slip is then scraped off so that there is a clean edge between the white of the slip and the red of the clay. The tile is then fired and glazed before being laid on the floor. The slip turns yellow during the firing. The tiles are laid on a lime screed, which has given the floor a level base, and then a mortar mixture of lime and sand is used, with water being added to set the floor. The tiles would feature religious designs and also the crests of benefactors. From the 1540s the yellow and red tiles were phased out as delftware (blue and white) came in from the Continent.
In 1500, the monasteries were thriving, even rivalling the power of the State. Henry VIII, when he became King, resented their power and wealth, and the control from Rome. He was also influenced by religious ideas coming from Europe, about people praying directly to God. Professor James Clarke explained that Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries over a four year period, removing an institution that had shaped people’s living and working environment for centuries. This was uncharted territory because the monasteries had provided education, care for the sick, and much more.
The farming calendar was punctuated by religious festivals. Peter had set up a religious guild and now wants to do something that guilds traditionally did: put on a mystery play. This tradition was lost after the dissolution of the monasteries, but it involved recruiting locals for scene building and acting, to perform a “mysterium” or mystery play, a play which was a “snapshot” of a moment from the Bible and which educated and entertained. Guilds tried to do a memorable performance and Tom is visiting Jack the alchemist for help with pyrotechnics: Tudor fireworks. In the 13th century, Roger Bacon studied how to make fireworks and they were made by adding minerals like saltpeter to finely ground charcoal. Jack also adds some gunpowder and comments that ratios of gunpowder were studied for the first time in the Tudor period. The firework is made up of layers of powder built up to produce different effects, before the fuse is added. Jack explains that while scientists wanted to publish their findings, alchemists wrote theirs in code.
Ruth is making a drink for the audience to enjoy at the play: mead. She is picking bullace, a variety of small plum which was common in Tudor times. Ruth comments that bullace trees are signs of ancient settlements as they are not common today, being forgotten when the sweeter damson came along. Sugar was a luxury in Tudor times, so fruit was not preserved by making jam. People looked for fruit that lasted a long time and this bullace fruit will last for 3-4 weeks after it’s been picked. Ruth uses a mortar and pestle to press the bullace and explains that a basic mead was made from leaving honey and water to ferment but “melomel” was a mead flavoured with fruit. She mixes the fruit and honey (the more honey the stronger the mead) and then adds water. She doesn’t wash the fruit because she needs the wild yeasts from the skin to help the mead ferment. The mixture is then left in the sun to ferment.
It is time for the mystery play. A farm cart is used as a mobile stage. These plays were popular in the 14th and 15th centuries but were censored out of fashion by the 1590s. Guilds chose plays which reflected their interests, e.g. carpenters chose the crucifixion and farmers like Tom and Peter chose the harrowing of Hell. They were like modern pantomimes and the arrival of the “baddy” would be marked by a bang: one of Tom’s fireworks. Pulley systems and elaborate sets were used.
Ruth’s melomel goes down a treat with the audience.
Ruth, Tom and Peter walk round abbey ruins. In 1534, Henry VIII became Supreme Head of the Church and this was the beginning of the end for the monasteries. This was the last time that religion and farming were so entwined. Over the next four years, monasteries were pulled own, land was sold off and monastery building became empty shells. Social services were lost too. It was a huge turning point in our history.
It’s the team’s last day on the farm. Tom and Peter say goodbye to Gwyn and Graceful, the oxen, and give them their winter feed.
In 1500, the monasteries were at the peak of their power and influence. They were one of the largest landowners, controlling mines, waterways and farms, and holding a virtual monopoly over the wool trade. They were the dominant social, spiritual and cultural influence, but the dissolution of the monasteries transferred power and wealth to the Crown. Some things vanished and some things became state and private enterprises. The farming landscape changed for ever.
That was the last episode of Tudor Monastery Farm, but a Christmas special will be on at 9pm on New Year’s Eve.
P.S. Don’t miss today’s Advent Calendar surprise – click here.