The Medieval Project on Church Stretton
The Church Stretton 1214 Medieval Fair took place during June 2014, starting with a banquet at the Sylvester Horne Institute, where guests tucked into medieval food and enjoyed period entertainment from musicians Merrie Noyse.
The Festival had been organised to celebrate the 800 years of the town's history since King John ordered that a weekly market be held in 1214.
There was a procession which was led by Shrewsbury Town Crier Martin Wood and children from local schools wearing medieval garb. It made its way from Sandford Avenue to Rectory Field, where a medieval village was recreated, with 30 traders and a host of historical entertainment.
As its contribution to the event, the Church Stretton Area Local History Group mounted a display in the Parish Centre, showing what life would have been like for local people in 1214.
The following information has been taken from the display boards that were on show during the Festival and cover the followings topics:
Excerpt from the Domesday Book for Shropshire
Houses were largely built of timber, as only the rich could afford stone and in many cases they were likely to be temporary structures. Even today, in developing countries, houses are frequently rebuilt because of pests and for hygiene reasons. They leave little material evidence and it was thought that all the houses of the peasant classes had been destroyed.
One common type of building to remain today is the ‘cruck house’, named after its style of building. Over 3,000 of this type of houses have been identified and they are largely in the Marches region. Once thought to be the houses of richer people, the fact that so many remain and in concentrated groups, it is now argued that they must be a common type of building used by many people.
They were also thought to date from a much later period but recent dendrochronological evidence suggests that they were being built from the mid -13th century. It is very likely that building techniques similar to this were being used locally.
They seem to typically have three bays, the middle one being the larger of the three. Only one side bay seems to have had an upper floor and in some cases, there is evidence that there would have been a central hearth in the middle bay. Roofs were made of thatch.
A reconstruction of a cruck building from the Weald and Downland Open air museum.
Bibliography and Sources
Catling, Chris(2013) ‘Peasant Houses in Midland England’. In Current Archaeology Issue 279, June 2013. p12-19.
Illness and Death in 1214
In 1214 the major, often fatal, diseases were tuberculosis (including scrofula), pneumonia, measles, dysentery, gonorrhoea (syphilis was unknown, being introduced from the Americas after the discovery of the New World in the 16thC), diphtheria, typhoid, leprosy, cholera, typhus (which was spread by body lice) and smallpox. Childbirth for women and injuries sustained in the course of work for men were also often fatal.
As no-one understood the existence and nature of germs, so the importance of hygiene wasn’t recognised and thus bacterial, parasitic and viral diseases were common and, without modern medical intervention, often fatal. King John had a bath every three weeks but this was considered a luxury, not a hygiene precaution and certainly not something that most people could contemplate. Far worse than infrequent personal washing, however, was the lack of an effective sewerage system.
Much medical knowledge from the ancient world had been lost and the Catholic Church didn’t allow post-mortem dissections. Illnesses became to be considered as punishments from God. Pilgrimages to holy places and the purchase of relics and holy water from them were promoted as cures.
There were hospitals, often provided by monasteries, but they were more like hospices or homes for the aged and needy rather than places of medical care. Barbers, rather than medics, performed surgery and although the interventions were often appropriate and skilled, without either anaesthetic or hygiene, they were still highly dangerous.
Women also had to face the hazard of childbirth. During her childbearing years, a woman’s chances of survival were half those of a man.
Childhood was a dangerous time, before the immune system was fully developed. Nearly half of all children died in childhood.
The average life expectancy for a male child was 31 years. This average covers a wide range though: if he reached 20, he could then hope to live for another 25 years until he was 45. It was a violent society and the manual labour in which most men were employed meant that serious injuries were common. Injuries that weren’t serious in themselves could be fatal because of subsequent wound infection.
Cholera and typhoid outbreaks – both caused by poor hygiene – were frequent and often fatal. On the other hand, some of today’s killers either weren’t present, or were much less prevalent. Tobacco was yet to be introduced; cancer is mainly a disease of the elderly and therefore didn’t have such an impact on a population that already had such a short lifespan. Heart disease - a problem associated with an over-abundance of food – didn’t pose much of a threat when most people struggled to find enough to eat.
Ian Mortimer: The Time Traveller’s Guide To The Medieval England
In 1214 Church Stretton (or Stretton-en-le-Dale as it was known) comprised a small, predominantly agricultural, settlement.
Situated within a royal hunting forest called the Long Forest, which extended south from the outskirts of Shrewsbury to Stokesay, east to Clee Hill and west to the Stiperstones, the inhabitants of medieval Stretton were subject to Forest Law, which was imposed to protect the king’s deer and game.
The area was not continuously wooded but was a blend of moorland, agricultural land and woodland amidst which were the small villages and hamlets of the rural peasantry. Remnants of former Long Forest woodland are thought to still exist on the slopes of Ragleth Hill.
Stretton was surrounded by its three large open fields (Ashbrook, Snatchfield and the Overfield). These were divided up into strips which were cultivated by the local people for growing crops. The strips were rotated to maintain soil fertility.
There were also hay meadows around the settlement and extensive common hill grazing pastures on the Long Mynd and the unwooded slopes of the Stretton Hills.
Woodland was managed by coppicing to ensure a continuous supply of small fuelwood and raw materials.
Around Brockhurst lay an expanse of wetland and marsh, some of which was incorporated into the fishponds for Brockhurst castle. There were watermills located on the brooks that run through the valley.
Stretton possessed the basic necessities for life albeit with no frills.
In the Medieval period, farming was an essential part of the life of individuals and families. Food could not be imported from abroad and brought to Church Stretton, it was either grown locally or transported much smaller distances than today. Local markets were a crucial opportunity to sell excess supplies that you had grown or produced and to buy what you needed.
Farming was on a much smaller scale than modern day practice and was much more of a village affair. It was based on a system of large, open fields that were used for the growing of crops. The land was largely owned by the Lord of the Manor and the villagers (or villeins) worked for him so many days a week. Villagers had to work together on many aspects of the farm.
Although called a two-field system, there were in fact three open fields; two would be in use for crop-production in any year and the third was left fallow. This allowed the third field time to regenerate and increase its fertility ready to go back into production the following year. Crop-rotation was an important aspect of farming practices in this period as little was known about improving soil fertility but it was recognised that crops did not grow well on soil that was continually used to grow the same crop.
Around the 13th century, the practice of growing legumes on the third field was spreading across the country. This meant a third more food could be produced. This is called the three-field system.
This was an important aspect of farming in the Medieval period as it was more than just a means of food-production but had an impact on the social order of the community as well.
Each family would have one or more strips in each of the fields, which meant that everyone would share the best and poorer areas of land equally. Individuals could not decide what crop to grow though, this was done by the reeve. The crop grown on the strip would be considered their own but they would give a percentage as rent to the Lord of the manor and as a tithe to the church.
Each strip had to be long as teams of oxen were used for ploughing. The oxen were communally owned and worked. The length of each strip was a ‘furlong’.
Two crops a year were sown.
In winter, crops like wheat and rye would be sown in one field. The Marches grew a lot of Rye, hence names like Rylands (near Bridgnorth) and Ruyton (north of Shrewsbury).
Then in spring, crops like barley and oats would be sown in the second field. Young children would be used to scare off birds from the fields.
Peas and beans would also be planted in the third field.
Gardens were an important addition to food production for the family. Cabbages, onions and flax would be grown as well as herbs, medicinal plants and maybe also plants for dyeing fabric.
Evidence of Farming Practices
There is limited evidence today of Medieval farming practice. One practice though has left its mark on the landscape and that is ploughing.
The teams of oxen used to plough fields needed a large turning circle at the end of each strip. Today, we can see evidence of this in our winding country roads and footpaths that weave across large fields. They are following the line left by the plough team as it turned.
Within the fields, banks and ditches were created along each strip and these are known today as ‘ridge and furrow’. Modern farming practices have largely flattened these but in some areas of the country they can still be clearly seen. Locally, it can be seen in Corvedale (top or left and near Helmeth Wood(bottom or right).
We don’t know what livestock were actually kept in the valley of Stretton-le-Dale around 1214. We can surmise though that there would have been teams of oxen for ploughing the fields. A family may own one ox but they would be worked communally as a team. Families would also have kept chickens, pigs and geese.
Horses and donkeys were used as pack animals and for transport.
We do know that by the 1340’s, there were about 240 sheep being kept at Church Stretton and over 2000 at Clun. Today, there are several thousand sheep on the Long Mynd down from its peak of 13000. In the Medieval period, sheep’s milk was highly regarded as it is richer than milk from cows. Their fleeces were also a valuable commodity.
Hallam, H.E. (1981) Rural England 1066-1348. Fontana
Hallam, H.E. (1988) The Agrarian History of England. Vol 2 1042-1350. Cambridge University Press
The Assize of Bread
King John introduced the first laws governing the price of bread in about 1202, this was then converted into the Law of Assize in 1266.
Wheat was extremely important to the lives of the people of Britain. It’s price affected the price of all the other crops that were produced. When wheat was scarce, its price would go up and even if other crops were plenty, their price would go up too. When wheat was plenty, the prices of all crops would be low.
The Assize of bread was the first law to regulate a food item. It decreed the size of a farthing loaf depending on the price of wheat. There was also an Assize of ale as both bread and ale were staple items in the diet in the Medieval period.
Weather Records: Extract from “Agricultural Records AD 222- 1977”
By J.M. Stratton
1202: The year began with an exceptionally cold winter. Holinshed records “ale was frozen and sold by weight”.
1205: A frost that began on January 5th and continued until March 22nd caused much delay in cultivations and spring sowing. In the following summer wheat was extremely dear about 10 times its normal price.
1207: On January 27th a tremendous storm, accompanied by snow caused much damage to property and killed many sheep and cattle. Subsequently, the cold was very intense.
1210: Dry summer. A great fire in London.
1214: Another dry summer, in which the Thames was so low that women and children could wade across it.
1222: A year of scarcity and famine….much of the harvest ruined by the weather.
1223: A year of cattle plague.
In this period English was an unofficial language in its own country. It almost had the status of a ‘patois’ or ‘creole’ it was the language of the uneducated masses and so was mainly a spoken, rather than written language. At this time there were several regional dialects in English, the differences between them were so strong that people born 50 miles apart could not understand each other. Slowly one dialect became prominent and a written form of English began to emerge. The text opposite (or top, below) is one of the earliest examples of a text written in Middle English (1186-1216). The word order is the same as modern English – it is a poem, The Owl and the Nightingale.
Latin was the language of the church and scholars. Although the church was a seat of learning many of the clergy, especially in small rural parishes, only had the basic principles of reading and were expected to memorise long sermons and passages from the Bible.
At the same time the production of books was done in monasteries by monks. In the 13th century books were produced by hand, laboriously copied and illustrated, the work was often long and demanding and always expensive.
Opposite (or bottom, below) is a beautiful example from the convent of St Mary at Buildwas dated 1176. (British Library)
Sounds of Stretton
The sounds in the High Street in Church Stretton in 1214 would have been very different to those of today. There would have been no background noise of machinery or recorded music. Instead there would have been the squawking of hens and grunting of pigs in the backyards, and the voices of villagers shouting greetings and instructions to each other. A source of great joy in the summer of 1214 would have been the lifting of the Papal Edict on King John which had meant that no church services were available to the English kingdom for the last six years and this included the ringing of the church bells! No baptisms, no weddings, no funerals, no masses or confessions were performed by the priests in this period and no church bells were rung to mark out the time of the day.
In 1214 there three types of Music; Church music of the Gregorian chant type used in religious ceremonies, Court music performed by minstrels singing long ballads of courtly love influenced by French fashions, and the Secular music of the common folk which involved songs that were sung in rounds. The best known is Sumer is icumen in which is old English for Summer is a Coming which is sung by six voices and also known as the Cuckoo Song. Attribution
What Was Happening in the World at Large
1202 →The Fourth Crusade began.
1202→Court jesters make their first appearance
1202→ Fibonacci writes a book that promotes the use the Hindu-Arabic number system which has 10 digits and a zero rather than using Roman Numerals (e.g. 1214 rather than MCCXIV)
1204→The Fourth Crusade sack Constantinople
1204 →French win back Normandy from the British but Jersey remains loyal to the British.
1206→Francesco di Pietro di Bernardone (Francis of Assisi) renounces his worldly possessions.
1209 →Cambridge university is established.
1212→Start of Children’s Crusade’s in Europe
1230-1253→King Wenceslas 1 ruled over Bohemia
1254 → Marco Polo is born
1206→ Proclamation of Tamujin as ‘Genghis Khan’ who went on to found the Mongol empire.
1215→Kubla Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan was born. In 1260, he became Emperor of China and the Mongol Empire. Marco Polo later visited Khan’s summer palace at Xanadu and his description led to Coleridge writing his famous poem in 1797
1232→Chinese first used gunpowder in rockets in war.
@1250→People of Easter Island begin building large statues
1200-1300→Polynesians first land in New Zealand.
1200 →The city of Tula with a population of around 60,000 was the capital of the Toltec people of Central America. They were one of the groups of people who we know as Mayan. Their time of domination was ending and this period saw the early stages of the rise of the Aztec empire
→In South America, the Chimor held power over large swathes of land east of the Andes. They were gradually to lose out to the Inca people who built cities such as Cusco and Macchu Picchu.
→North America was occupied by small groups of hunter-gatherers who had no large permanent settlements.
(NB The Americas were to remain unknown to Europeans for another 200+ years)
1200→Christian churches are being hewn out of rock in Lalibela in modern day Ethiopia.
From 1200→‘Great Zimbabwe’ one of Southern Africa’s first cities starts to develop. At its height, it had a population of around 18,000.
Moseley, M.E. and Heckenberger, M.J. (2009) ‘From Villages to Empires in South America’ in Scarre C. (ed) (2009) The Human Past, London, Thames & Hudson, pp.640 – 677.
Scarre C. (ed) (2009) The Human Past, London, Thames & Hudson
Finneran, Niall(2009) 'Settlement archaeology and oral history in Lasta, Ethiopia: some preliminary
observations from a landscape study of Lalibela', Azania: Archaeological Research in Africa, 44: 3, 281 — 291
Church Stretton History - Local Area History Group