I’ve just spent a slightly frantic few weeks exploring the fifeenth-century readers of a particular medieval text. Nothing unusual in that; it’s what I do. I know which names and places are likely to come up: it’s a safe bet that fifeenth-century London, York and Norwich will be full of eager lay people reading the newest books and I’m likely to read about Syon, Sheen, and Mount Grace if I’m looking at religious houses. There will be a few women mentioned, but mainly men.
I seldom, if ever, read about locations near the place where I grew up.
This isn’t surprising. I grew up in a little village near the Nottinghamshire/Leicestershire border, which you’ve never heard of. Most people who live in Nottingham or Leicester don’t know which county it’s in, and they’d have no reason to want to know. The local accent – which I don’t have, because my parents aren’t local – tends to get pretty snobby reactions, and the quotation in my title is Hillaire Belloc, celebrating the infinitely greater appeal of the South.
I had to look up the statistics on education (and I know they’re only a crude indication of the full picture), but I wasn’t surprised to find that only three of the nine areas into which England is divided had lower rates of Higher Education. Nor was it a huge surprise to find that no area of the country had a higher proportion of children who’d been permanently excluded from school (and the West Midlands had the same rate).
Growing up, we did a primary school class about local history: the village church was having it’s 200th birthday. We had a look at its exceptionally dull brick architecture and noticed where the tower was damaged because the cheapskate architect hadn’t made it strong enough to withstand the vibrations of normal-size church bells. No, really. I could give Nigel Slater a run for his money with the ‘my slightly shit, but not actually very shit childhood lifestyle’ if I really wanted to.
We listened to a tinny recording of bells ringing and went to trudge up the hill to gurn at the last few remaining tombstones where the old church had been. I remember the nicely macabre name of ‘Elizabeth Blood’. Nothing dated from earlier than the eighteenth century.
I always assumed this was a place with no real medieval history – just as it had no modern-day interest to me, as a child who couldn’t believe anything had ever happened. When the bones of Richard III were found in Greyfriars’ Car park, I kept hearing of people who were outraged at the idea of reburying Richard here in Leicester instead of in a proper, respectable, English Heritage sort of location such as York Minster. If I tell you Leicester is the absolute pinnacle of historical interest round where I lived, you can get the idea.
What I didn’t know until recently is that the East Midlands – ‘sodden and unkind’, in the wishy-washy middle-ground with no dramatic history of its own – is actually a place where you can find dozens of examples of medieval readers.The village where I grew up would in medieval times have been know as ‘Kynalton,’ a village in the ‘wapentake’ or distrinct of Bingham. I absolutely love the fact that a word like ‘wapentake’ exists.
Throughout this period, Kinoulton was listed along with Owthorpe and Cotgrave – a place whose recent history is mostly associated with the closing of the pits in 1993 – as one of the villages whose land largely belonged to the Binghams or their retainers. Although most of the references I could find described the ins and outs of rural life – who owned which fields; where each person was entitled to catch rabbits or fish – there were also clues about the education and the books some people were able to obtain.
In the early fourteenth century, a young man called Thomas Bingham got a dispensation from the Pope to become a priest despite the fact his parents had not been married when he was born. He went on to be master of the newly-founded Pembroke College, Cambridge, whose founding patron was a powerful woman and book owner, Marie de Ste Pol.
Later on, another young man, William Bingham, followed in his footsteps, founding Christ’s College, Cambridge, in 1437. This William made it his mission to reform education for children, and he sent a petition to the king asking to be allowed to found new schools.
Meanwhile, in the area where William had grown up, his family were educating themselves in the way that medieval gentry families always had: swapping books, buying old copies of texts owned by richer people, and commissioning or making their own commonplace books, where everything from favourite stories to recipies to notes about collecting rent or washing clothes were jumbled together. Gifts of books were precious in this context, and they tell us a lot about how people related to each other. One woman, a widow, gave a precious century-old manuscript of religious writing, not to her male relatives, but to her recently widowed sister-in-law, who was the niece by marriage of William Bingham. She includes an affectionate message, sending ‘Christ’s blessing and mine’.
Nearby, in the tiny village of Nether Broughton, a rector called John Reed dedicated himself to copying a manuscript for a family in Derbyshire. It included the ‘Liber de Diversis Medicinis’ (Book of Various Medicines), a sort of handbook of family medicine including prescriptions for infertility and childbirth, which Reed thoughtfully edited to make it more easy for the family he had in mind to search through the text.
Just a few miles away, in Willoughby-on-the-wolds, the Willoughby family beginning to make their collection of books, some of which you can see online in the collection of Nottingham University Library. These included a French story of the Holy Grail, one of the King Arthur romances, as well as a religious text originally written for a local woman, Aline la Zouche, in the thirteenth century. This local family, from Ashby-de-la-Zouche, were constant patrons of religious reading throughout the period.
So far, when I’ve told people I’ve come across an amazing thing, an important, vital group of readers in a location we think of as being boring and middle of the road and uncultured and rural, they’re quite positive. They start telling me how we need to revise our assumptions, how we need to take pride in this submerged regional history. This is work that’s already being done for other areas of the country – there’s a huge project looking at the Black Country and the way the modern dialect is actually reflected in a beautiful and very culturally prestigious medieval manuscript. A friend of mine has recently written about how important it is to her to think about medieval manuscripts in this geographic context, in the place where they were made and where she grew up.
Yet when I read some of the academic work – and there isn’t much of it – I found cautious statements about how it might well be that these rural families didn’t really look for manuscripts, they just sort of inherited them, with the family silver and Aunt Mildred’s ugly vase, if you like.
It really struck me how similar this attitude is to a lot of people’s attitudes to women’s education and book use. You’ll notice, too, how many women feature in this picture of East Midlands readers – that’s not an accident.
But often, when I say I can find dozens of examples of medieval women who were authors and scribes, illuminators and stationers, readers and educators, I’m met with scepticism: surely I am distorting the picture? Surely I must have ‘gone looking’ for these women, who might very likely have simply fallen into family jobs or taken over shops from their husbands? Would I really insist on teaching students about niche areas like women’s reading, or provincial cultures like the East Midlands, when I could be teaching them about Chaucer’s London, Gower’s London, maybe with a side note on the nice urban communities of readers in York?
There’s a strong tendency to insist on qualifying information about marginal cultures. To an extent, obviously, this is just good scholarship. But I do think it can also be another way of slapping people down. The excitement I get when I find out about a woman living in 1454 just down the road from where I grew up, who was handling the same manuscript whose pages I’ve just been turning is absolutely amazing. It makes me feel connected to history in a way that women often aren’t, and people from my tiny, rather boring local area often aren’t. That’s something we need to value.