History Group Talks May 2009


                       “The Time Traveller’s Guide to Widecombe.” This was the subject of a talk given by Dr Ian Mortimer. 

This talk had been re-arranged from February due to inclement weather that month. Dr Ian Mortimer is an Archivist and Fellow of The University of Exeter and Reading University who in 2001 began a very successful career as a writer and speaker. The period under consideration is from 1300 - 1415. His delivery appealed to all present as he led us to believing we were living during that period. What was it like to live in the Fourteenth Century? In his talk he encouraged us to imagine the sights, sounds, noises and smells that would have been the norm at that time. The fourteenth century in Britain was a time of nasty brutish poor people who had a comparatively short life span by today’s standards. Yet amongst them were brilliant builders, an example of their work is the Nave at Exeter Cathedral.   Widecombe has within its parish boundaries, some fine examples of traditional Dartmoor longhouses built in this period seven hundred years ago or more. The best examples being at Higher Torr and Uppacott. The later now belonging to the Dartmoor National Park Authority. The house at Uppacott with its smoke damaged thatch, small windows that at one time had shutters, was home to the farmer and his family sharing the house with the livestock. Some houses were thatched with bracken, rushes or wheat and rye reed. The family spent most of its time out-doors and would have to travel to the nearest market town to shop. Many of the medieval ‘Lords of the Manors’ did not actually live in the Manor house and were classed as 'absentee landlords'. The Churches around Dartmoor are mostly of the fifteen century as are some of the bridges. The Lords of the Manor would appoint Reeves, to oversee the activities of their manors and manage the Commons in accordance with the laws of that time. Manor Courts were held each year when matters connected to the behaviour of the Commoners and those of adjoining manors could be dealt with. The majority of the population would be far younger than they are today. Fifty percent of the population died before reaching the age of twenty. Twenty-one years was the average age of the populous in the fourteenth century. Only fifty percent reached the age of forty and only eight percent reached the age of sixty. In many cases it is recorded that the royalty and the hierarchy lead their armies into battle when they were between the ages of sixteen and twenty. The average height of a male was five feet nine inches but they were very strong. They were capable of pulling a longbow, which was six feet in length and made of yew or ash, and needed a pull of one hundred and ninety pounds to be ready to fire. This was the weapon of those at the bottom of society. The wealthy fought in the jousting style and the force at the end of their weapon was equivalent to half a ton hitting the opponent at forty miles an hour. This was a violent and cruel time, any father who did not beat his child was considered irresponsible. Bull, Bear and Badger baiting were commonplace entertainment, as was Cock Fighting, and for the children they partook in Cock Thrashing. There is a report that in 1390, Sir John Arundel, on his way to battle in France, stopped at a Nunnery and his men raped all the women there. Those that survived were taken on board the ships and before reaching France were thrown overboard. Society was cruel to women and capable of these horrors. Women had no independence, and if made pregnant by the Lord or his offspring, could be made to marry a man in the district, on the Lord’s orders. Disease - the Black Death wiped out thirty to forty percent of the population, to put this into some sort of perspective, only one and half percent of the population of the country died in World War One. Plague and Leprosy were rampant during the thirteen hundreds (Leprosy meant the Living Death). No family cared for you or offered any protection if you had that disease. Violence - criminal justice was very severe and a third of those convicted of any crime were hanged. It was not safe to travel far without company. For instance to go to Ashburton to market or to purchase a sword, knife or other article of importance or value you would not travel alone for fear of being ambushed. Food - this was extremely basic and the only meat available to the ordinary person would have been vermin. The price of a chicken in those days would be the equivalent to £115 today.  Costumes - in this period, the majority of people would have worn a loose cloak hanging off the shoulders. In the mid-thirteen hundreds buttons were invented which meant that clothes could be opened down the front and fastened across. By 1360 hems began to rise and the better-off wore hose to cover their legs and by 1390 the hems were so high that men wore a ‘cod-piece’ in the front of their tunic. Dress continued to alter and the type of clothes worn often depicted the rank of the individual during this period.  Medicine - Physicians began using Urine to treat some complaints, they would taste samples of blood to ascertain the salt content. To cure Quincy they would make use of small animals mixed with liquid and by the fourteen hundreds surgery was beginning to make use of old Arabic treatments. Religion, the study of the Planets, and superstitions, sometimes recommended by people considered to be Witches/ Faith Healers were all part of the Physician’s cures. The Law of the Land - was brutal, anyone accused of theft was generally put to death, or hung drawn and quartered, those that committed minor offences were put in the Stocks. Constables were appointed and they were responsible to the County Sheriff, and hence to Royal Justices. People were held in prison for ages until the County Judges came to places like Exeter to hold Court. Some were pilloried, nailed to a post to stop them moving, and others held in prison in terrible conditions.  When reading Chaucer, it is possible to get a very accurate picture of what life was like at that time, his writings are like a living history. Girls were mostly wed by the time they were fourteen years old and in general girls were never taught to read or write. Two percent of the male population were Clergy, and the power that they held over the people was considerable, they in turn were generally sons of the upper-classes so their judgement and decisions were never questioned. For the poor a few bones and some stock with a few vegetables or herbs was the mainstay of their diet, meat being far too expensive. Dr. Mortimer was thanked for an interesting and informative talk, and the Group look forward to hearing from him again one day. His latest book “Time Travellers Guide to Medieval England in the Fourteenth Century” is a fascinating read. It is recommended to anyone interested in Medieval History.  * Interesting fact: Watching Place, near Beetor Cross, in the parish of North Bovey, was a very popular place for highway men to lie in wait for the unwary traveller. It is recorded that they would wait to ambush businessmen travelling between Ashburton, Chagford, Moretonhampstead. The business men would be observed travelling between these towns with their wares, wool, tin, potatoes and cloth etc, and on their way back, without the commodity but instead with the money in their pockets, they were 'sitting ducks' for these villains.

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