Medieval Lives, or, there’s lots to find out about Hull’s medieval people

by Elisabeth Salter

On Saturday 28th October I gave a “Culture Café” lecture on the subject of “Medieval Lives”.  Culture café is a great series run by the University of Hull and coordinated by Jackie McAndrew. Find out about more future events here:

Culture Café is part of the University’s programme of adult lifelong learning. It is made possible because people who are engaged in academic research are really pleased to discuss their research findings with the public. The café takes a theme for each series of talks and my “Medieval Lives” was one of a series given by the people who have written a chapter in the Hull: City, History, Place book (Liverpool University Press, 2017) which celebrates Hull in its City of Culture year.

My lecture focused in on the lives of medieval people below the level of the elite— and particularly on the townspeople of Hull (men and women) in the century roughly 1450-1550.  I talked about one of the main sources of evidence for understanding these lives which, maybe ironically, is the last will and testament. Thousands and thousands of these documents survive in the UK and they were produced by people from a wide social spectrum, so they are a main source for finding out about people in a late medieval town such as Hull. In discussion afterwards someone asked why and how the wills had survived, and would our wills therefore survive and be looked at as evidence in 500 years time? These medieval wills survive because they were copied into large official documents of the ecclesiastical court that administered them, known as Bishops’ registers- many more were, sadly, lost.

I talked about the mobile population of Hull in this era, how people came to Hull from places over the sea such as Iceland, the Netherlands, Germany, and sometimes settled in the town taking up trades such as beer brewing as well as the port related industries. And people came in from the region and the locality to work, pass through, or settle. The mobility of Hull’s population is partly because of the distinct identity of Hull as a very key port town in this era (rivaled only- and only just -by London). And it seems important to me to stress Hull’s mobile and mixed European community at this point in our own political situation. I talked about the ways that people generated wealth, and how the last will and testament gives us insights into the ways that widows also engaged in trading and maintenance of the family business. I gave some examples of the kinds of material goods that Hull people enjoyed, such as the girdle with knots of gold, the coral beads with silver casings and the cloth of gold bequeathed by Katherine Ewerby to her son in law and daughter in 1504. These examples of heirloom items, and the ways they are carefully described in the will, give us a sense of the aesthetic awareness of our Hull residents. The description of goods by their place or origin (or the origin of the style) such as the “Arraswork” hangings or bed coverings reminds us again of the multi-ethnic quality of Hull townspeople’s experiences of a domestic interior.

From John Speed’s atlas Theatrum Imperii Magnae Britanniae (The Theatre of the Empire of Great Britain), showing Hull and its environs.

I discussed some ways that Hull people described the property they owned and how they use the will document to confirm and create long standing commemorative connections with places of individual and family significance. Take for example the request of John Herryson (in 1520) that his widow look after and give money to property and a commemorative cross in Saltfleet Haven in Lincolnshire because, as he says “there I was born”. I also gave some examples of the ways Hull people gave back to their community in the form of charitable bequests to the poor such as the gifts of Joan Gregg, widow (1438) and Brand Adrianson, beer brewer (1502), of charitable housing for poor people including handouts of coal in winter. These almshouses were both in return for the residents’ attendance at mass and some prayers for the soul of the benefactor. In discussion a few people commented that this tradition is not entirely lost in Hull.

© the trustees of the British Museum. Paris, 1480–1520

Finally I spent a few minutes describing the ways that will documents give us insights into the literacy culture of our late medieval ancestors. Some people gave books to their kinsfolk, others gave books- or money towards a book as there were no penny classics in those days- to the parish church to be kept there so that everyone could have access to it. Parish churches were, therefore, the earliest of public libraries and a very important resource for learning to read as well as praying and being part of the religious community.  The subject of townspeople’s literacy is vast and could take a whole lecture in itself- another time perhaps!

Although I’m quite new to working on medieval Hull, I have been working on the last will and testament for a long time- in fact it’s where my research began. I always try to conduct some research which focuses on the location of the university I work for as it is enriching to know about the medieval past of our own locations. I always work on the non elite, on what we might call popular culture and I’m afraid I couldn’t help doing my party piece as an interlude to this lecture, where I sing a bawdy song to give an illustration of the kind of dramatic popular culture that our townspeople may well have encountered. I really enjoyed talking to the full lecture theatre of people, and to discussing aspects of my research individually and in the question session. I learned a lot as well from people who have deep knowledge of Hull and its environs, including the source and likely position of the “conduit of sweet water” the maintenance of which is mentioned by merchant widow Joan Gregg in 1438.

What are your thoughts?