Articles tagged with: medieval

The Truth about Stonehenge*

on Wednesday, 19 June 2019. Posted in Archaeology, Traditions and Folklore, Wiltshire Places

(*or what was held to be The Truth in the Middle Ages)

At the summer solstice, Stonehenge falls under the spotlight: in the solar sense and in the cultural sense. People all over the world find it fascinating and are reminded to ponder it when the sun is at its highest. Much of the appeal of Stonehenge may be attributed to its encompassing aura of mystery, its air of mind-bending antiquity. There is much about it we don’t understand, despite the advances made by ingenious researchers, but we are not the first generations to try to account for Stonehenge. So what did our forebears believe?

According to a twelfth-century author called Geoffrey of Monmouth, the ancient stone circle now known as Stonehenge was originally brought to mount Killarus in Ireland from Africa by a group of giants. It was known then as the Giants’ Dance and had healing properties. The stones came to Wiltshire with the help of a very young Merlin, at the behest of King Arthur’s uncle, Aurelius Ambrosius, to be reconstructed as a memorial to a group of Britons massacred during the reign of the malicious usurper, Vortigern. Some decades later the structure renamed Stonehenge becomes the final resting place of Uther Pendragon.

I studied this story while writing my PhD about an illustrated medieval manuscript containing an abridged version of Wace’s Anglo-Norman French translation of Geoffrey’s history: La Roman de Brut. Even in its shortened form, the episode in which the child Merlin guides the reconstruction of Stonehenge celebrates brains over brawn, great power despite littleness of stature: 

“They grasped the stones behind, in front and sideways: they pushed and thrust them hard and shook them hard, but however much force they used, they could not find a solution.
‘Rise’ said Merlin, ‘you will so no more by force. Now you shall see how knowledge and skill are better than bodily strength.’ Then he stepped forward and stopped. He looked around, his lips moving like a man saying his prayers. I do not know if he said a prayer or not. Then he called the Britons back.
‘Come here,’ he said, ‘come! Now you can handle the stones and carry them into your ships.’ As Merlin instructed, as he devised and told them, the Britons took the stones, carried them to the ships and placed them inside. They brought them to England and carried them to Amesbury, into the fields nearby.”
 – Based on Judith Weiss’ 2002 translation of Wace’s Roman de Brut


To the medieval mind, the stone circle was a monument to human mastery of nature, as well as to the fallen Britons. Still today we measure ourselves by the power of our prehistoric ancestors to have created it. I recently created a linocut of the child Merlin guiding the reconstruction of Stonehenge. Both Geoffrey of Monmouth and Wace focus on the dismantling of the stones in Ireland, which is also the moment illustrated in the manuscript I worked on for my PhD. Instead, I depicted the moment when that iconic plain was undergoing its momentous transformation.

The Working Life of a History Centre Volunteer

on Tuesday, 04 June 2019. Posted in History Centre

Hello! I’m Louise a long serving volunteer at the History Centre in Chippenham. I have worked on and off in a voluntary capacity since 2005. I first discovered the Wiltshire Buildings Record (WBR) when it was located within the Wiltshire Record Office at Trowbridge. Dorothy Treasure, who is responsible for the day to day running of the charity, recognised my real passion for old houses and recruited me to her keen band of volunteers.  Over the years my contribution has varied due to the needs of my family but I have always been encouraged to continue. Dorothy is also our Principal Building Historian; she is a real expert in her field and I feel very fortunate to be able to work with her.

Volunteers at the History Centre come from all walks of life and work the hours of their choosing. In my case I had worked as an HR professional prior to having a family rather late. Some volunteers are still in paid employment and join us when they can. This is the case with some of our committee members.  Some volunteers work with the WBR for a while in order to gain experience to advance their careers in the heritage sector. What we all have in common is an interest in our country’s heritage and a wish to rub shoulders with like-minded people and those working in professional roles.  There are four strands to my voluntary work - documentary research into the history of individual buildings, building recording, data entry into the Historic Environment Record (HER) and committee work.

Typically I begin the week with the Archaeology Service, entering data from the WBR archive records onto the HER database. With 18,000 buildings records to work through, I think I’ve gained a job for life! Tom, the HER Manager is always nearby to guide me through the more complex aspects of the system. I am one of four volunteers he manages each week. We all do different things based on our interests and skill sets. I love the challenge of locating buildings particularly when building names have changed, buildings have been altered and only sketchy address details are given!               

Tom the HER Manager and I at the History Centre and Martin one of the archaeologists in action at Avebury (photo taken by Terry Waldron)

Working alongside the Archaeology Service has given me a real insight into the challenging work the team undertakes, the county of Wiltshire not only has an important World Heritage Site, Stonehenge and Avebury, but also many other important historic assets to protect. I always enjoy listening to the office banter, the team are a lively and adventurous bunch. The team even has its own Morris dancer!

On a Tuesday, I work with Dorothy and spend my time researching the history of individual buildings. It is a day when I am able to catch up with other office-based volunteers over coffee or lunch. As a charity we need to generate an income and we do this mainly through commission work for individual house owners. Each report we produce includes a comprehensive recording of a building and some documentary history. Documentary research is my main area of expertise, built up over a number of years. It did help studying for an Undergraduate Advanced Diploma in Local History from Oxford University. All the study was done via the internet which was fantastic.  The Archives team has always provided me with great support when I needed it, along with the WBR.

 

Studying maps in the Archive room to locate a particular cottage in the village of Netheravon. The building I am looking at is identified by No.90 on the 1790 Enclosure Award map for the parish

An Ancient Hall in Swindon

on Tuesday, 14 May 2019. Posted in Architecture, Wiltshire Places

During a visit to Cricklade I was asked to pop in to see a cottage in Swindon. This cottage and another similar one nearby were all that were left of an ancient hamlet and were now surrounded by modern houses, giving a very suburban flavour to the area. The cottage had once been a prosperous farm but was subsequently divided into two cottages, a not unusual development for a farmhouse in the 19th century.

On the ground floor were two original rooms, the core of the cottage before it was extended. A heavy 17th century beam ran from the gable end fireplace to the cross wall and this immediately aroused my interest; when an open medieval hall with a central hearth is floored over, the beam supporting it often has one end lodged in the chimney breast, which is added at the same time.

By the time I got to the first floor I was excited to see the start of a heavily-plastered cruck blade with arched brace of what must have been a hall truss emerging from the stone wall, and disappearing through the ceiling. Crucks are a very distinctive form of timber-framing not seen in Wiltshire after about 1530: our dendrochronology project is collecting data on this very subject.  Barely containing myself, I arrived at the attic floor via a steep, winding stair to be confronted with the massive and heavily smoke-blackened top parts of a 14th century roof. There were two main frames complete with characteristically skinny wind-braces, some original chunky rafters, and smoke-blackened battens, though the thatch had been replaced.

Image: Apex of one of the cruck trusses

The timbers had been cut about to allow circulation within the attic space, but originally the impressive cruck frames would have been only viewed from the ground. To get some idea of what a medieval dwelling house would have been like when built, go into an old tithe barn such as that at Lacock or Bradford-on-Avon and be impressed by the sheer scale and size of the timbers and height to the roof.  A farmhouse would have been smaller, but still impressive. The hall truss over the open fire would have been the most decorative, with chamfered bracing, parts of which remain. In the 17th century the old hall was clad in stone, hiding or replacing the original timber-framing and its wattle-and-daub panels.  Houses like this had to change with the times to stay useful, or be replaced. I suspect there are many more hidden medieval halls out there just waiting to be discovered, even in the most unlikely places!

Dorothy Treasure, Wiltshire Buildings Record

A New Start: Working as an Archive Conservator

on Monday, 05 March 2018. Posted in Archives, Conservation

In 2017 I graduated from the Conservation MA at Camberwell College of Arts and having volunteered for several years in the Archives Conservation department I began work as Assistant Archive Conservator at the WSHC. My role involves being part of the Conservation Museums Advisory Service (CMAS) who support heritage organisations in Wiltshire and beyond. Primarily I work with the archive material held at the WSHC to help maintain and preserve it for current and future generations.

Since beginning at the WSHC in August 2017 it has certainly not been quiet. So far amongst other things: I have begun to master map repair, mounted and tensioned parchment, attended several conservation surgeries, found some exciting things whilst surveying archive boxes, spent seven hours hoovering the strongrooms and made several gluten free cakes for the staffroom! Here are some of the highlights:

Parchment Tensioning

One of the parchment maps from our collection was extremely distorted so I used a conservation tensioning method to gradually reduce the cockling. Because parchment is animal skin it behaves very differently to paper and requires specific methods of treatment. It was left tensioning for two weeks before being put in a polyester enclosure and returned to the archive.

Parchment before tensioning
Parchment under tension
Parchment after tensioning in its enclosure

Overseers of the Poor Account Book

A project I am currently working on is the Overseers of the Poor Account Book

This is a large project this time involving a very fragile set of pages from 1732. These would once have been bound but now just remnants of thread remain in some pages. The paper is so damaged in areas that it is crumbling away.

Severely degraded leaf from the Overseers of the Poor account book
Loose attachment pieces from the Overseers of the Poor account book

One leaf had a pile of severely degraded papers attached with a pin. I carefully removed the loose pieces and pieced them back together where possible.

To make it accessible to the public again each page is being lined with a Japanese tissue. This is translucent enough that the writing on the side of the lining tissue is still visible whilst making the page strong enough to be handled.

   
Above: applying the lining tissue to a leaf from the volume

Degraded leaf and attachments after conservation work

The above photograph shows the main leaf and one of the attachments that I was able to piece back together, after both have been lined. The remaining pieces were grouped together by ink and writing type and enclosed in bespoke polyester pockets in the hope that they may be of use to future researchers.

Celebrating 5 years with the Wiltshire Archaeology Service

on Monday, 02 October 2017. Posted in Archaeology

At the end of August I celebrated five years with the archaeology team here at the History Centre in Chippenham.  I thought this a suitable milestone in which to reflect on some of the most exciting discoveries in the central part of Wiltshire (the area I cover), discovered through the advice we give on planning applications.

The Government set out its requirements for the planning system in the National Planning Policy Framework in 2012.  Section 12 deals with conserving and enhancing the historic environment.  The advice we give on planning applications follows this guidance which needs to be relevant, proportionate and necessary. It is important to understand the significance of heritage assets impacted by development, which is why we ask for a proportionate level of investigation to be undertaken prior to determining applications.  Various stages of investigation are carried out. To begin with an archaeological Desk Based Assessment (DBA) pulls together existing information, using as a baseline the Historic Environment Record and other sources where available such as historic maps, aerial photographs, field surveys and site assessment.  The DBA helps to establish the potential for archaeological remains to be present within a development site. Sometimes, there is little existing information available because there have been few investigations within the area.  In such cases geophysical survey is a useful method for revealing unknown archaeological remains within a site.  We get greyscale plots and interpretation plans to help understand what potentially is of archaeological origin. In most cases we ask for trial trench evaluation following geophysical survey. Trial trenching enables us to understand the significance of the archaeological remains which will be impacted by development.  Depending on the heritage asset’s significance (to use NPPF terminology) we may ask for a site to be preserved in situ i.e. not impacted by development, or preserved by record i.e. it gets excavated, the remains assessed and then reported and/or published. The following examples show previously unknown settlements which have been found through such methods.

Westbury
Trial trench evaluation followed a geophysical survey in 2015 which discovered a number of features dating to the Romano-British period including a number of trackways and ditches. The site has yet to be developed.

Melksham
Trial trench evaluation followed a geophysical survey in 2014 which confirmed the presence of a Romano-British settlement. The site is currently being excavated, more detail to follow.

 

At another site in Melksham, a geophysical survey identified a number of features and the trial trench evaluation confirmed remains dating to the prehistoric, Roman, medieval and post-medieval periods. The site has yet to be developed.

Trowbridge
Geophysical survey across a large proposed development site highlighted two sites of particular interest.  Trial trench evaluation confirmed a concentration of early Romano-British ditched enclosures associated with trackways and pits and posthole features which appear to represent settlement remains. The relationship between the two sites is of interest. More ephemeral prehistoric activity was represented in other parts of the site which the geophysical survey did not pick up.

Looking for Women in Country Life – Medieval and Early Modern Manorial Records

on Monday, 29 June 2015. Posted in Archives

The phrase ‘Women in Country Life’ conjures up ladies of the manor showing off their stately homes in Country Life, the magazine which published photographs of their marriageable daughters. It also reflects the back-breaking toil of most rural women down the centuries.

In Medieval and Early Modern life women were prized as heiresses because family lands passed through them to the next generation. The custom of primogeniture, the inheritance of family manors and estates by the eldest male heir became established in the century after the Norman Conquest. Women were the glue in the feudal system, giving birth to the next generation of male heirs for their husbands’ families. When their own families died out in the male line, women as co-heiresses – the sisters or daughters of a deceased lord – carried their estates to new families when they married. This was also true for the peasants. By the 16th century farms were generally leased out for three lives. In the absence of male relatives, women’s names were added to the lease to transfer the property down the generations. A new life could be added at any time – for a fee – as births, marriages and deaths changed the family structure.

The manor and its courts organised agricultural labour. Manor court rolls and books record the names of the lord or lady of the manor who received the profits from the land, and the tenants who rented farms and grazing rights on the common fields and pastures. The lord of the manor had the right to prove tenants’ wills and a surprising number are found in court records – a treasure trove for the family historian!

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