‘Now in Then’ – getting creative with archives!

on Thursday, 20 March 2014. Posted in Archives, Art

In 2014 a new project called ‘Now in Then’, funded by the Arts Council England, has been launched, which includes a series of Saturday workshops involving creative writers using archives here at WSHC. I have been involved from the outset in helping to choose the themes for the workshops, alongside the tutor Angela Street, and I have had free rein to choose the archives to help demonstrate those themes. Not being a creative person myself, I am greatly enjoying working with others who are, who can help me see the archives in a new light.

The theme for this term is ‘Lives in the Landscape’ and the first session (on 1 March) looked at the ownership of land. Most of the records I chose for this came from manor courts. The history of manors is worthy of a detailed blog in its own right but in the meantime if anyone is particularly interested they can read up on it on the University of Nottingham website (link at end of this article).

Put simply, a manor is a landed estate with the right to hold its own manor court, which, prior to the Tudor introduction of Quarter and Petty Sessions, was the main local court of law for minor offences. The concept of manors dates back to Anglo-Saxon times, and central to the operation of the manor court is its monitoring of communal behaviour, known as the ‘View of Frankpledge.’ This basically was a system of mutual responsibility meaning that a tithing (a group of about 10 households) agreed to work together to keep law and order within their grouping.

If anyone disobeyed the rules the most common punishment was a fine (or ‘amercement’) paid to the lord of the manor (the chief landowner) but other punishments were possible, such as being locked up in the village bridewell, or put in the stocks.

What becomes really clear when reading the manorial court records is how strong the sense of community must have been, compared to the more individualistic lives we live today. The court records also show how some individuals then, as much as now, didn’t always play by the rules!

For example, from The Court Records of Brinkworth, (edited, transcribed and translated from the Latin by Douglas Crowley in Wiltshire Record Society volume 61) we learn that in 1575 ‘Alice Beale, a widow, is a chatterer and a common scold to the annoyance and bad example of the neighbours. She is to be placed in the stocks…’

In 1579 Alice reappears, once more in trouble: ‘That Alice Beale made the Church way founderous in the Slough, to the annoyance of those passing. Amerced, 6d.’ (Translated into modern English this means that Alice allowed a footpath to become boggy, and is fined 6 pence.)
Again in 1581 Alice Beale reappears:

‘Christopher Beale complains against Alice Beale, a widow, in a plea of debt on demand for 10s 8d. Alice acknowledges a debt of 10s 2d. Execution will be made, with 12d for expenses and costs.’ (NB Execution does not mean Alice is being executed! It means Alice will have to pay up.)

These are just a tiny sample of the types of cases you can find in manor court records – typically they centre on the monitoring of the assize of bread and ale (a precursor of trading standards), keeping animals on common land, the upkeep of footpaths, boundary disputes, transferring land and so on. However there is a huge variety of business dealt with by the manor court - other interesting cases in the W.R.S. volume include men being fined for playing at bowls, ‘a prohibited game’, and John Osborne being accused of leading ‘a suspect life, setting a bad example to the inhabitants’ in 1575.

The creative writers on Saturday were using the nuggets of historical fact in the court records to inspire creative writing in the form of imaginary tweets (with the discipline of having to write within 140 characters), haikus, and poetry. Future sessions will look at other forms of creative writing.
You can follow the project on Twitter via the hashtag #nowinthen.

An example of a fictional tweet is that by @DragonNimlet:
“It was cold, snowing hard. @DragonNimlet traced a hare, gracefully, not realising he would be fined 18d - a broken statute! #Nowinthen”

The first term is fully booked but if anyone is interested in joining in future sessions, please contact my colleagues in the Arts team This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

The project will include other elements such as a writer in residence based at the History Centre, and the professional performance of writers’ work. I look forward to seeing how the project develops and how the creative writers breathe new life into the past!

Claire Skinner
Principal Archivist

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