Documentary Review ╽Life On A Tudor Monastery – Absolute History
In today’s blog post, I wanted to share a six episode documentary series called Life On A Tudor Monastery made by BBC. All episodes are aired and free on this amazing YouTube channel called Absolute History, with the permission of the BBC and its content creators. It was a very enjoyable series detailing what life was like during the Tudor Era.
They have many series that are quite excellent! I watched this series and several more with a good friend of mine over a week period. It was quite fun seeing the cast experience a time not their own. The six episodes go over farming, religion, technology, and what everyday living was like. Viewer’s get to follow a small group of people who actually spend weeks living on a Tudor Monastery just the way they did back in the Tudor times. The cast include historian Ruth Goodman and archaeologists Peter Ginn and Tom Pinfold. They show us how living in the Tudor era was done. It isn’t as easy as it looks! This period in history were difficult times for most people and life revolved around religion.
These cast members are beyond adorable as they navigate, learn, and trouble-shoot problems they face in their new every day life. According to the BBC, this series “turns the clock back over 500 years to run a farm at the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum in West Sussex exactly as it would have been in 1500, during the reign of the first Tudor king, Henry VII.” There are several more series that involve this excellent cast such as Life On An Edwardian Farm, Wartime Farm, Victorian Farm, and many more! I’ve watched all the above because I fell in love with this group of people as they share what different time periods were like by living them. My favorite person is Ruth Goodman, and her family, who make several appearance throughout the series. She is the most likeable, enthusiastic, and well-spoken historian I’ve ever come across outside of Lucy Worsley. She makes viewers love the history as much as she does!
I will post each episode below with their general information and synopsis so reader’s can find them and watch them either imbedded right here on the blog page or directly on YouTube for free at your convenience.
The first episode finds the farm team arriving at Weald and Downland in West Sussex. There are domestic tasks to tackle, from lighting fires with flint, making meals with depleted crops during the hunger gap and using a tread wheel to fetch water from the well. Peter and Tom’s first job is to move the sheep to fresh grass. Wool at this time was known as ‘the jewel in the realm’, because it generated much of the nation’s wealth.
Ruth makes a tallow light out of rushes and sheep fat – it will provide the only source of light outside of daylight hours. And to equip the kitchen, she visits Robin Wood, one of the few men in Britain who can transform a log into a wooden bowl. She tackles making the favorite Tudor dish of pottage and performs the ritual of laying the table, an act full of Christian symbolism.
Tudor pig breeds were large, wild and often dangerous animals and monasteries forbade pigs to run free, so Peter and Tom set about building a pig house, without nails! Peter and Tom must also master a new skill – ploughing with oxen. These creatures, neutered cattle, had traditionally been preferred to horses. Today, there are no working oxen left in Britain, so Peter and Tom hope to do the job by breaking in a pair of cows!
The team follow a key custom of the time in setting up a religious guild, dedicated to the patron saint of farming, St Benedict. In an age before science, a guild was seen as a key means of ensuring favorable conditions for success for farming communities (and a safe passage to heaven!). The team also celebrate one of the most important religious events of the year – Palm Sunday, which signaled the coming of Easter, a time of much merry-making, where foliage was blessed by a priest and hung over doors to ward off evil spirits and misfortune. It also requires Peter to dress up and play the role of a prophet.
The monasteries in 1500 were the biggest landowners in England and Wales after the king, and this placed them at the forefront of early Tudor technology and farming. This episode focuses on wool production – known as ‘the jewel in the realm’ of the English economy, it accounted for around half the country’s wealth.
The monasteries capitalised on this massively, owning flocks that numbered thousands of sheep and keeping a virtual monopoly on the export of wool to foreign countries. Monastic tenant farmers were second to none when it came to exploiting the huge commercial potential of sheep farming.
Ruth gets to grips with the farm accounts – an essential task for any farmer in the period as they became increasingly aware of maximizing their ability to profit from the land efficiently.
Peter makes a shearing bench – a medieval labour-saving device – which involves bending wood by steam. To seal any wounds that might occur while shearing, Tom makes an economy salve out or broom, suet, brine and urine. Peter and Tom then herd the sheep to a pond where they are thoroughly washed. And Tom gets his first taste of shearing sheep.
With sheep so abundant on Tudor farms, they were regularly milked as dairy herds (much as cows are today). Ruth uses the sheep’s milk to make cheese that she can sell at the market.
The wool fleeces are sorted. The monasteries maintained a reputation for trading the best quality fleeces by only accepting the very best from their tenants to sell onto the wool merchants. Peter takes the best of the fleeces to be graded by experts. The acceptable fleeces would be weighed and taken away for sale – the farmer only got paid their share after the monastery had sold the wool, and the monks set the rate.
In episode three the team focus on preparing the staple foods of everyday Tudor life – bread and ale. A hard-working Tudor farmer could consume a two pound loaf and drink eight pints of weak ale in a day. With the monasteries owning much of the farmland Ruth, Peter and Tom are well aware of the importance of praying for a successful harvest. They join their fellow parishioners in the tradition of ‘beating the bounds’ – circling the parish boundary while praying for a good yield.
The piglets are ten weeks old and Peter and Tom join pig farmer Neal Careswell in weaning them from their mother. Turkish the boar is now ready to be reintroduced to the sows.
Ruth, meanwhile, is in the woods trying to harvest wild yeasts from the air for the bread-making which will happen in the monastery bakehouse. Peter goes off to a local windmill to help with the production of wheatflour.
Life in a Benedictine monastery was based around a strict routine and time management was vital. Tom and Peter meet Abbot Aidan Bellenger to find out how this was done. Tom visits a foundry to help in casting a new bell, while Peter visits the British Horological Institute to see how a 13th-century mechanical clock works.
Peter helps bee expert Paul Hand harvest the beeswax used to make candles for the monastery. Paul shows him how to make the candles whose pure, clean flame represented the light of God.
Historian Ruth Goodman and archaeologists Peter Ginn and Tom Pinfold return to Tudor England, to work as ordinary farmers under the eye of a monastic landlord, learning to master the landscape away from the farm in order to supplement their income. The monasteries’ lands covered a variety of terrain, which would need to be exploited by the tenant farmer to raise income for themselves and the monastery.
Lead was an important building material and Tom and Peter mine their own using Tudor techniques, while Ruth makes a stained glass window.
On the rivers owned by the monastery, tenant farmers could rent fishing rights. Ruth makes baskets to catch eels in and sets about trying to find some. Eels were a real treat in the Tudor period, eaten only on feast days by ordinary folk.
Back on the farm, the team learn how aspirational tenant farmers would have decorated and embellished their farmhouses. Ruth produces a wall hanging. Meanwhile, Tom experiments with a camera obscura so his portrait can be produced in the Renaissance style that was becoming all the rage in Tudor England.
Elsewhere on the farm, Peter is waiting to find out if his pigs are pregnant in order to keep up his enterprise, a lucrative money spinner.
The team’s hard work is rewarded with a fine meal of eels in their newly decorated home.
Historian Ruth Goodman and archaeologists Peter Ginn and Tom Pinfold explore hospitality in Tudor England. With no provision for the poor from the state, the monasteries played a key role in providing welfare and charity for those in need. But funding charity also meant extending hospitality to wealthy donors.
The monastery enlists the help of the team to restore a corrody room which would have been granted to an elderly worker as a form of pension. The room needs a new floor so the boys gather and roast limestone in order to make lime putty. Ruth is in charge of the home comforts and harvests rushes from the river to make a mattress.
The Abbot is planning a big feast to entertain a patron – a good way to encourage the wealthier members of society to make large donations. In preparation, Ruth sets about tackling the monastery’s laundry, before taking on the cooking preparations.
Tom oversees the production of a book to give the patron as a gift. First he must learn how to make linen paper. He then experiences an exciting new technology – the printing press with moveable type – before embarking on the final stage of the process, book-binding.
Back on the farm the cows are short of food so Peter goes in search of tree hay – an ingenious form of fodder that pre-dates grass hay by millennia. The team reunites to bring in the pea harvest, their most successful crop yet.
The final preparations for the Abbot’s feast are made, with Ruth lending a hand in the kitchen to produce some lavish dishes for the Abbot’s table, while Peter distils wine into brandy. There’s also a lesson in Tudor etiquette for Tom and Peter before the feast is served.
It is harvest time, and the days are getting shorter. This episode the team will be bringing in the barley and celebrating with a harvest feast, to give thanks for their bounteous crop.
Autumn was also a time for preserving produce for the winter. Ruth makes salt – vital for preserving meat – in order to have supplies of food throughout the bleakest months of the year.
The team have been recreating the monastic farming conditions of King Henry VII’s reign. But his son, Henry VIII, would dissolve the monasteries in the 1530s. Banishing the Church of Rome and with it, the monastic system, replacing it with the Church of England. These would prove to be the last days of monastic living in England. With this in mind, the team focus their attention on some of the skills and crafts that were once monopolized by the monasteries but would be dispersed after Henry VIII’s Dissolution. Peter learns how to carve stone and make floor tiles, and Ruth makes Tudor medicines.
To celebrate all their hard work over the course of the seasons the team put on a mystery play, a travelling show that would go from town to town. The plays were organized by religious guilds, like the Farming Guild set up by the team at the beginning of the series. While Ruth and Tom make props and costumes, Tom makes fireworks with an alchemist before preparing to take the stage as Beelzebub in a production of a fitting Tudor favourite, ‘The Harrowing Of Hell’.
As the team prepare to leave the farm they reflect on what they have learnt and contemplate how the landscape of Britain and the lives of its people were forever changed by the end of the monastic era, marked by the Dissolution.
BOOK PICK OF THE DAY
John Matusiak sets out to shed new light on the lives and times of the Tudors by exploring the objects they left behind. Among them, a silver-gilt board badge discarded at Bosworth Field when Henry VII won the English crown; a signet ring that may have belonged to Shakespeare; the infamous Halifax gibbet, on which some 100 people were executed; scientific advancements such as the prosthetic arm and the first flushing toilet; and curiosities including a ladies’ sun mask, “Prince Arthur’s hutch” and the Danny jewel, which was believed to be made from the horn of a unicorn.
The whole vivid panorama of Tudor life is laid bare in this thought-provoking and frequently myth-shattering narrative, which is firmly founded upon contemporary accounts and the most up-to-date results of modern scholarship.
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