Telling Stories from Handling Medieval and Early Modern Objects

Many thanks to Chester Archaeological Society for circulating the news that Dr Katherine Wilson (Associate Professor in Later Medieval European History, University of Chester) was inviting CAS members to see and handle medieval objects in Chester from the Grosvenor Museum’s collections at two pop-up events.  Both were part of the Mobility of Objects Across Boundaries initiative.  The first event was on the day that I attended, the 3rd March at the Garret Theatre in the Story House, and another on the 4th March.  We were all greeted warmly by the team from Chester University, which included students who were seated in front of trays full of objects for us to go and investigate and learn about.

The format was very straightforward and worked perfectly.  A number of trays containing the objects were organized on a u-shaped table layout, so that we could easily move between them without being on top of each other.  In front of each tray was a University of Chester student, all of them helping us to explore the objects, encouraging discussions and real involvement with the objects in front of us and how they might lead us to understand more about the lives that left them behind.  Each tray had a selection of very different objects, so in each case there was a lot to talk about.  I didn’t catch the names of the students, but they were excellent.

Chester has a rich Medieval past, but as the team made clear, most people thinking about Medieval Chester focus almost exclusively in terms of the Cathedral and the half-timbered shop fronts, when there are not only other great buildings, like St John’s Church (Chester’s first cathedral), but there are also all the objects that have been excavated over the years, the items of every day life that people used, wore, carried with them or used in their daily work.  These items bring to life, at least in the imagination, the people who owned them.

Sole of a leather shoe, beautifully shaped. Source and copyright: The Mobility of Objects Across Boundaries (MOB)

Each object has a knack of opening windows into other parts of Medieval life that are no longer easily visible or reproducible.  The shoes were particularly evocative.  The first tray at which I sat down contained fragments of a black material, some very thin, one rather thick.  When I was asked what I thought they were, I said the first thoughts that came into my head: leather, protective, item of clothing.  I guessed a hood, perhaps because I was drenched from rain 🙂  They were, of course, fragments of shoes.  In the other boxes there were far more complete items, one sole with an additional patch of leather attached over the heel as a protective layer, much like a flat shoe today.  All of them bore the signs of wear, most of them were marked by tiny holes where one piece had been connected to another, and there was even a fabulous child’s shoe with an open toe.  These shoes, preserved in a waterlogged ditch just outside Chester, posed so many questions – how expensive were they (a goose, a sheep?), and in turn were they high status objects?  Were they everyday wear or were they only worn for best?  Where did their owners wear them?  How far did their owners, wearing their leather shoes, travel for trade, as messengers, or on pilgrimage?

Two of the keys in the object handling trays. Source and copyright: The Mobility of Objects Across Boundaries (MOB)

There were several keys, some of which had remarkably patterned and intricate ends or bits.  For every huge key there must have been a vast door, opening into home or business premises, whole worlds within worlds.  For every tiny key, each fascinating in its own complexity, there is a missing lock, a missing box and the missing contents to contemplate.  Perhaps such keys, each either looped or perforated at the tops, were carried on a string, worn around the neck when small enough or tied to a belt or locked in a draw, along with other keys.  Whilst the keys themselves were portable, and the small keys may have opened small and very portable chests, the big keys probably opened big doors, either room doors or cupboard doors, and whilst the keys themselves were portable, what they were opening was much less so.

The pieces of wheel-thrown pottery were impressively large and well made.  There was no sign of glazing, so these were probably very practical, every day items.  Being rim sherds, the diameters could be calculated to give an idea of the size of the pots.  There were no bases, so it was not possible to see if there was any sign of the sort of charring that would be expected for cooking.  Perhaps they were used for storage.  They were solid and designed to be moved around, re-used and to do a reliable, practical job.  A piece of handle probably belonged to an even bigger vessel, looking very like a Roman amphora handle, thick and ribbed, impressively chunky.  The contents of the vessel must have been heavy to require such big handles, perhaps a liquid of some sort.  If these items travelled, and were broken in the process, it was probably in the process of being shifted across a room or in the case of the thick-handled vessel, perhaps being carted from farm or port to market.

Medieval floor tile. Source and copyright: The Mobility of Objects Across Boundaries (MOB)

Medieval floor tiles seem like the antithesis of mobility or portability, but they too had travel tales to tell, as one of the students pointed out very vividly.  Between the pattern designers, the clay diggers, the mould-makers, the artisans and those who laid the floors, these pieces passed from hand to hand until they were eventually laid on the ground.  They are thick, about 3.5 cms from memory, and as the lady sitting next to me pointed out at one of the trays, there was little sign of inclusions in the fabric.  This presumably made them less prone to cracking, more able to bear the weight of people walking over them.  The tiles were splendid, the glazed ones with the indented moulded decoration capturing light as we moved them.  In candle light, the images, lions and griffins, must have appeared to shift and shimmer, providing them with a type of dynamism beyond the pattern that the contributed to on the floor.  I was looking at the Victorian floor tiles in Chester Cathedral last week, for which I have a guilty liking based on the hallways of countless terraced houses around the country, but when compared to the Medieval ones they seem very two-dimensional and glossy.  The Medieval ones have a texture, luminosity and energy that are truly remarkable.

There was one piece, possibly a tile, that was neither rectangular or glazed, but perfectly round with a lion’s head looking out.  The puzzle, the student told me, was that the rectangular ones were all mass-produced, because they would be laid on floor, just like modern ones, but round ones were most unusual.  This was small, only about 10cm in total diameter, and deeper than the square ones.  It was also, if memory serves, made of stone.  The lion’s head was painted on, not moulded, and although the disk itself would have been fairly tolerant of feet, I wonder about that lion.  A possibility is that it was the centre of a radiating design, but the radiating pieces would also have to be specially shaped, and if so, where are they?  As he said, a puzzle, but a very nice one.

A remarkable ampulla. Source and copyright: The Mobility of Objects Across Boundaries (MOB)

Some of the objects came from outside of Britain.  A gorgeous little cross within a circle, just a few centimetres across, was from Siena in Italy, and was probably sewn on to a piece of clothing, and would have looked like a brooch.  Other items may have worked their ways all the way down the Silk Road, eventually finding their way to Chester.  One particularly startling piece, featuring a very austere male face, is a tiny St Thomas Becket flask for containing holy water, called an ampulla (ampullae in the plural), the ears forming little loops for string attachment to a belt or clothing.  Its weight suggests that it was made of lead.  Some of these long-travelled objects were moulded, and easy to mass produce, but owning them would still have been precious, often representing a serious achievement, something to which others might aspire, and making the owner visibly one of a circle of similar achievers, irrespective of birth or background.
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Silver spoon handle with face of St Peter topped by a cockerel. Source and copyright: The Mobility of Objects Across Boundaries (MOB)

In another tray was a tiny but highly decorative little piece of metal, a devotional token. It is in the face of a head, and was broken below the neck, so certainly had once been somewhat longer.  It probably had something of a similar role to a pilgrim’s badge – the souvenir or, rather more importantly, an indication of pride, the sense of achievement with which a particular devotional religious task is associated.  There was also a very, very thin copper ring on the same tray that had a wide section at the front, with tiny little carved symbols marking it, thought to have been different events in the owner’s life.  In another tray was a silver spoon handle from Rome showing the face of St Peter and topped with a cockerel, representing Peter’s denial of Christ three times. These three items were so small and personal that they spoke of how people who made long journeys, perhaps people who did not have sufficient silver pennies to make many such journeys, valued these objects as emblems that declared numerous concepts – achievement, affiliation with an idea or an ideal, veneration of a religion or a preferred saint.  One student (wish I had known any of their names) had on his own jacket a replica pilgrim’s badge of geese in a basket, the symbol of St Werburgh, whose remains were moved to Chester Abbey (now Cathedral) in the 10th century, attracting  pilgrims.

Poppy worn by thousands of British people each year in memory of those lost and wounded in war. Photograph by Philip Stephens. Source: Wikipedia

Taking this a step further, people have been using objects to signify identity, nationality and membership since prehistory, and we still wear objects to communicate similar ideas.  Examples are badges of membership of a particular association or society; shirts supporting a particular sporting team; sweatshirts declaring an affiliation to a particular university; handbags advertising how elite they are by displaying their designers’ logos; poppies on Remembrance Sunday expressing our debt to those injured in war and, just recently MPs in the symbol-laden House of Commons wearing Ukrainian flag ribbons.  Today some of these icons and symbols travel the globe very easily, but travel was more difficult in the past, and some images that found there ways into Medieval society travelled from other parts of the planet via trade and pilgrim routes, copied and re-interpreted as they travelled.  The emblems of association with guilds, religions and the signals of achievement must have had a much greater depth to them, and new images and their ideas must have been both challenging and fascinating.

National Archives Currency Converter showing the results for the estimated value of £1.00 in 1440

Distributed through a number of the trays  were coins, tiny silver pennies, so thin that they were terrifying to handle and difficult to read.  One was a Henry VI penny, so beautiful and so subtle that it looked more like a piece of ornamentation than something one would do business with.  The question of how one measures value came up.  Many exchanges were done in kind, trading one set of skills or products for another in the form of services, foodstuffs and finished products but for  assessing those who had coinage, the National Archives has a fabulous Currency Convertor, enables you to put in a year, a monetary value (like a penny, pound or £10, 3s, 1d and press a button to calculate how many horses, heads of cattle, sheep wool, days of labour etc you would get for your money.  It goes back to 1270 and gives a vivid sense of what value something may have been in the past, and since I found it about 10 years ago has always made me think of historical coins in terms of what that would have purchased. If we plonk ourselves down somewhere in the middle of the king’s first reign, say 1440, when there were about 240 pennies to the pound, what would £1.00 have bought you? One horse, two cows or seven stones of wool.  That also equates to 33 days of a skilled tradesman’s labour.   All those little pennies added up to something very significant if only, just as today, you could save enough of them.

It’s amazing how one can get things so badly wrong.  One object, with a very sharp point and spurs of different sizes, I speculated might have been a device for cleaning sheep hooves.  I am a bit livestock-orientated, having specialized in livestock management in my own research.  On rethinking, I thought that it might have been used for both piercing and shaping leather or other materials.  Turns out that it was another key, presumably incredibly well worn 🙂  One of the great things about the object handling event was that there was absolutely no derision.  All ideas were welcomed.  Handling the objects, talking about them, thinking about them was a great way of bringing all that reading to life and imagining how people’s lives actually looked and felt.

Grosvenor Museum. Photograph by Dennis Turner. Source: Geograph via Wikipedia

There will be an exhibition based on a similar theme at the Grosvenor Museum in Chester beginning at the end of April.  I used to volunteer there, working on finds during the 1980s.  Dates and top-level details for the upcoming exhibition, which will probably be added to in the future as the exhibition nears, are at:
https://events.westcheshiremuseums.co.uk/event/medieval-chester-retold/

Repeated thanks to Dr Katherine Wilson and her excellent team, who did such an excellent job of talking us through the objects on the trays in front of them.  Thanks again too to Chester Archaeological Society for the email that told me that it was happening.  A great couple of hours.  For more about the Mobility of Objects Across Boundaries project, see the website at:
https://mob.chester.ac.uk/
https://mobilityofobjectsacrossboundaries.wordpress.com/

I went for a second wander around the cathedral afterwards, and was lucky enough to catch the organ in full swing.  Glorious.  Although this is a 19th century organ, with bunches of pipes popping up everywhere, there are records of an organ in the abbey since before the Dissolution, perhaps contemporary with some of the objects that we were handling today.
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Links connected with Thursday’s event:

Mobility of Objects Across Boundaries website
https://mobilityofobjectsacrossboundaries.wordpress.com/

Mobility of Objects: Pilgrim badges and devotional tokens from the Grosvenor Museum, Chester (video)
https://www.openartsarchive.org/resource/mobility-objects-pilgrim-badges-and-devotional-tokens-grosvenor-museum-chester

Object Videos Pilgrimage Badges and Devotional Tokens (video)
https://mobilityofobjectsacrossboundaries.wordpress.com/object-videos-handling-session-2-pilgrimage-badges-and-devotional-tokens/

Education Object Boxes
https://mob.chester.ac.uk/activities/education-object-boxes-for-schools/

Other sources

Useful details about ampullae
Ampulla
https://medievallondon.ace.fordham.edu/collections/show/90

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