A viewing suggestion from the media arm of Root Simple

I really enjoy learning about technologies that are basic enough that I feel like I can understand them–and maybe even replicate them. The technology of Tudor-era in England is by no means primitive, but it also is not as complex and machine-based as the tech which takes off in the 19th century and accelerates so quickly into the present era. I would be hard pressed to explain how anything around me works–from this machine I’m typing on to communicate with the outside world, to the electric light burning beside me.

Bless the BBC for making Tudor Monastery Farm (a title which I believe would not fly on American television). This is a quiet series showing three historians/archeologists at play in the Weald & Downland Open Air History Museum, trying out some of the skills they’d need to be tenant farmers to the local monastery. It has some of the structure of a reality show, but it seems that no one really wants to go that direction much, so with the exception of a bit of camera confession about the urgency of getting the peas planted before Easter, there is none of that annoying reality show faux drama. Instead, it’s just full of juicy nuggets for the appropriate tech geek.

The series is on YouTube. I pray the BBC doesn’t take it down before I get to finish it.

In the first episode alone, they cover goodies like:

  • Coppicing
  • How to make two type of fences: a hazel wattle fence and a dead hedge fence, both of which can be made with a machete and a club
  • Treadwheels: Giant human powered hamster wheels which, along with water wheels, were the engines of their time.
  • How to make rush lights out of sheep fat and rushes.
  • An almost forgotten food plant called Alexanders, which is a Mediterranean plant related to parsley, which I’ve never heard of but now want to plant in my garden.
  • Tips on calligraphy done with quills. Did you know the quill has to be almost horizontal in the hand?
  • And how to make a paintbrush out of a feather and a stick. Marvelously clever, and the secret to the fine lines in illuminated manuscripts.
  • How to make a magnifying glass out for working the detail in said illuminated manuscripts.
  • How a Tudor gentleman literally sewed himself into his clothes each day, & the mysteries and marvels of the codpiece. (I suppose that if I were transported to that era I’d eventually stop staring at the distracting cords dangling from gentlemen’s crotches. You’ll see what I mean.)
  • You get to meet one of the last working teams of oxen in England (sad!), and see what it takes to plow a field.
  • How to build and wattle and daub pig house
  • And finally, very exciting, there’s a cameo by Robin Wood, the last professional wooden dish carver in England. I’ve seen his videos (where he looks much less dorky than he does in Tudor gear) and actually have one of his bowls. He carves beautiful bowls and spoons, his only tools his hatchet, his carving knives, and a foot operated pole lathe. The foot operated lathe was in use for nearly 1000 years, but now is almost extinct. It’s a wonderful piece of technology. Robin makes it look simple, but I’m sure it takes mad skills to use.

And that’s just the first episode. Ale and cheese, blast furnaces and sheep shearing to follow!

One last take away: Because my undergraduate degree is in art history, one thing that really struck me was how much everyone in this show looked like characters out of a Bruegel painting. If you know Pieter Bruegel’s work, you might remember how all his people have this particular stocky, stuffed, oddly jointed, funny-footed sort of look. I thought this was an artistic affectation.  Turns out it’s just the way the clothes fit. Pieter, I did you wrong. You were just painting what you saw.

pieter bruegel's painting, The Peasant Wedding

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  1. Words aren’t enough to express how fantastic you two are and the marvelous resource you have created to share these amazing nuggets of goodness!!!
    I can’t wait to watch this!

    • I’m looking forward to all of these — especially Victorian Pharmacy! I’ve watched a bit of Victorian Farm, but I really do think I prefer the Tudor tech.

    • There is another one called “Tales from the Green Valley” with the same crew. It takes place in the 1600’s. Loved it! Really hard work back then!

  2. Thanks for the information! I love watching programs like this. Most TV shows are so time-wasting that I am always looking for something good to watch on my computer. Hopefully BBC will keep posting things like this.
    I just figured that Bruegel’s people were wearing lots of clothes and long johns in order to stay warm. Kind of how I look really bundled up in a cold house! LOL

  3. Between Tudor Tech and the spycraft I picked up from Alec Guinness in the original Smiley’s People I think I’m all set for weather the apocalypse, both farm and espionage.

    Thank you BBC and root simple.

  4. I think the first one of these they did was also Tudor period, “Tales from the green valley”, also available on youtube.

  5. I saw this last month and loved it! (then again, I am a medieval history buff, so no surprise there). It gave me many ideas for things I want to do with my own garden, I put up my initial plans on my blog. Definitely doing the wattle fence and the medieval style shown in their garden. Step 1 this year: grow willow for the wattle.

  6. I was going to suggest that one. Its a bit later than monastery farm- early Stewart. They live in a cottage in Wales and there are a couple of other historians there with them.

    I’ve really enjoyed all the series. Ruth Goodman has my perfect job! My ten year old loves Victorian farm especially (its one of her favourite DVDs!) It meant she could impress the staff at a living history Victorian museum on a school trip. 🙂

    I have a soft spot for the Tudor period as well. I have done some volunteering as a Tudor maid at Shakespeare’s mothers house in Stratford-upon-Avon and loved it. We baked in a cob oven, cooked the midday meal on an open fire, lit the fire with a flint and steel, hand threshed wheat, made lye from ash and ate alexanders!
    I have found them growing wild in Wales but they only grow within 6 miles from the coast unless you plant them. I accosted a farmer on a campsite who bemusedly let me take me take some he’d just strimmed. I ate them with butter- and took some to him- and they’re delicious; slightly resinous.

    • I have got to get me some alexanders.

      And personally, I just want to attach myself to Ruth Goodman’s leg.;)

  7. Oops, posted twice and was anonymous once! Sorry- using husbands tablet as laptop very poorly and I’m struggling to get to grips with it….

  8. If you haven’t seen it already, I recommend Tales from The Green Valley–it has some of the same folks from the other BBC historical series, with an excellent look at very old farming techniques. After watching the series, I rounded up a potter and had him make an alembic still for a gift to an herbalist friend. He based his design off the model shown in the series, and lo and behold, it works like a charm! So, my take away message: watch these shows, because the stuff they do actually works! 🙂 And, they are really really good, too.

  9. I love these shows! I get all excited every time a new series comes out (also everything River Cottage related), and my wife and I put aside a series of nights to watch them. They’re especially great in Winter, when you’ve got the fire on and a nice warm beverage and bowl of pudding/pie/whatever :-).

    One tip – look for a browser plugin that lets you download YouTube videos (I have one for Firefox, but I’m not at my computer right now to give you its name!).

    Then you can download the videos, and use a program like Handbrake to convert them to different formats (e.g. for viewing on an AppleTV or iPad or other device). Then you can watch them again and again!

  10. “Tudor Monastery Farm” would not cause an eye to bat around this town. Less than a mile from my house is Saint Bernard (BERnard) Abbey, a Catholic monastery of Benedictine monks. The monks had a huge farm that fed the whole group and the Nuns from Sacred Heart Abbey and Convent. They had cows and all manner of livestock, fields that grew everything. I see the nuns and brothers shopping in the grocery stores even though they still raise livestock and have fields of produce, just not such a large setup. However, located as they are outside town on hundreds of acres, they have room and they are industrious enough to be self-supporting again. They are builders from all trades besides the farmers.

    For people who did not recognize “Tudor,” they would equate it to “Bernard.” It would be just a name.

  11. Thank you for the suggestion! I will, for sure, watch this series. Along the same lines, I highly recommend Dorothy Hartley’s book Lost Country Life: How English country folk lived, worked, threshed, thatched, rolled fleece, milled corn, brewed mead..etc. –and any of her other books, as well.
    History Channel International (before its recent descent into bizarre-ness) used to run a number of similar British shows (maybe they are on You Tube) such as “What the Romans Did For Us,” (other shows were about the “Ancients” and the “Victorians”), and “Medieval Lives.”

  12. PB the Elder’s Hunters in the Snow is more apt this morning, as we await 6-10″ of snow and ice in Piedmont NC. Bread dough on the counter, pot roast in the oven, beer in the fridge; now we just need Tudor garb to keep us warm if the power glitches. Best wishes!

  13. Actually, American public media has done such things as Colonial Home and Frontier Home dealing with much of the same material at a later point and different location. If you haven’t seen them they’re also wonderful.

  14. We have watched WarTime Farm, Edwardian farm, Victorian Farm, Tudor Monastery, Victorian Pharmacy, and Tales of the Green Valley. Not in that order.

    I surprised myself. Rather than WarTime Farm being my favorite, it was Tales of the Green Valley. Wartime came in second.

    We have a “hobby” size farm and picked up quite a few goodies from all of them, but mostly the two favorites. At some point, you will notice overlap.

    Some of the gems we liked: 1. Daub and Wattle. It wasn’t that we didn’t know about this, but it seemed to make a lot of sense. 2. Chamber lye. The Romans were right on this one and ammonia is the forgotten cleaning gem. The rest is for you to discover. 3. Ruth Goodman does not use laundry detergent any longer,in real life, but washes clothes in plain water alone, as 99% of the clothes will be clean. This is on her website information. 4.There are some heritage fruit I have never heard of, as well as Alexanders. Very cool. 5. The Peas porridge song now made sense. 6. Life hasn’t changed that dramatically in farming through the ages. Current “practices” not withstanding. 7. I was simply aghast at the rationing and government control over **every** aspect of life during WW2 in Great Britain. Comparing all the stories from my parents with this series was interesting. 8. (Wartime) When a country imports more than it exports it is very very vulnerable. Sound familiar? 9. The farm land appears to be mostly clay. I do not know how they produced food in the first place. 10. The government graded the farmers and if they did not pass, they took over the farms. If I remember correctly, they took over about 2,000 of them.

    Have fun watching the rest of this series as well as the other ones.

  15. Thanks so much for this. Watched last night and can’t wait to see more! The history, the tools, drinking ale day and night because of questionable water quality! I should have been born back then!

  16. I just have to say that after reading your comments about pole lathes in Britain, and how the chap featured was the ‘last pole lathe maker/user’ – lots and lots of folk use them. We’ve a thriving craft industry in green woodworking in the UK, including using pole lathes. We also make and use shave horses, hell even I’ve made a greenwood table. We also make wooden bowls, greenwood furniture, spoons, oak swill baskets, willow anything. It’s big movement over here so don’t you go thinking he’s the only one! My friend is making a violin! Come over and see for yourself! cheers, C

  17. You and Mr. Homegrown are just too wonderful for words. I spend most of my time reading, viewing, and veering off from your blog most days. Thank yall for being your down to earth sweet eclectic selves!!!

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