I haven’t been watching much television recently, but one thing I have managed to keep up with is Tudor Monastery Farm. I was a big fan of the original Victorian Farm, but didn’t really get into the later series, Edwardian and Wartime, simply because they seemed too similar to the original, in terms of farming techniques and home life. However, when I saw that they were doing a Tudor version, I thought this would be much more interesting – and it has proved to be.
The team show us how farming and home management were approached in a time before industrial techniques and mechanisation. Historian Ruth Goodman and archaeologists Peter Ginn and Tom Pinfold experience life as tenant farmers working on the land of a typical monastery in the early Tudor period. They show us all of the techniques used in this era to grow crops and livestock, manage the home and manufacture products.
The programme covers many early crafts that I have wondered about for ages – how on earth did people convert ore to metal tools? How did they manage to create enormous stained glass windows in this era? How did they make all the woollen cloth that made England so rich?
What you learn from the programme is that in this era, everything that we take for granted now was mind-numbingly time-consuming and their innovation and patience was incredible. Here are a few highlights from the show so far:
Peter and Tom mine lead ore, before building an enormous smelting fire on a hill and place lead ore on top of it so that it trickles down to produce molten lead. They have some problems with the wind, but when they return the next day they pick up pieces of metal from the ash. They then purify the lead and cast it into bars using sand moulds.
It’s incredible the amount of physical labour that went into creating every piece of metal around in the Tudor period. Some have criticised various aspects of the process (see these comments), but it gives me a bit of an insight into how people got from mining rock to solid metal tools.
They harvest honey and beeswax directly from the hive, using a feather to brush away the bees without getting their legs caught. Ruth then melts the wax and dips a string repeatedly into the wax until a tall candle forms around the wick.
These candles would have been expensive and used only in churches and monasteries, since they burned cleaner and smelt sweeter. The poor would have used only tallow candles made of animal fat – these would have spluttered and smelled bad.
The method used to create paintbrushes is incredibly ingenious, considering the complexity of attaching bristles to a handle. Instead, they take a single feather, cut it in half, and feed the barb through the hollow shaft so that a small section of soft feather pokes out to provide bristles. The simplicity of this idea makes it so brilliant.
Yeast is another thing that we just seem to take for granted now – when somebody is making bread or beer, they just add yeast. Wild yeast grows on the skins of fruits and grains, so Ruth shows us how this would have been harvested. She prepares a bowl of flour and water and leaves it in a field of grain and when she returns, the substance appears slightly frothy, indicating that yeast is present.
Wool was England’s most important export in the Tudor period – it formed the basis of Britain’s economic prosperity in the next few decades. Therefore, a great deal of labour was devoted to wool production and it certainly was a labour-intensive process.
Peter and Tom learn how to shear the sheep, then Ruth spins the wool into yarn before being shown how a weaving machine is set up. After the cloth is woven, it is hung up on tenterhooks, providing the phrase ‘on tenterhooks’!
When I see stained glass windows in cathedrals, I always wonder how they managed to make them so big while keeping them secure. Ruth practices the techniques they used to make stained glass windows and it is surprisingly quick. The design for the section of window is drawn onto the glass with charcoal before being carved and chipped away at with flint to remove the edges of the design.
The sections of glass are then held together and secured with lead. To make the lead easier to apply, it is melted over reeds to provide flexible lengths of metal to place in between he sections of glass. This is then melted on, providing a secure glass window.
If I have any criticism of the programme, apart from the small inaccuracies that may be present, it is that the weather is always great and the people involved seem to show some element of nostalgia – this is pretty common when people talk about the Tudor era. The awful living conditions, social inequalities and disease are not mentioned, but of course that is not really the aim of the programme. The phrase ‘merry old England’ is even spoken at one point.
The Tudor Monastery Farm Christmas Special will be broadcast on BBC2 at 9pm on Tuesday 31st December.