Chris Catling

Teenage girls wed old men shock
It sounds like a salacious headline from one of the red-tops, but actually this story comes from the ultra-respectable Antiquaries Journal, whose just-published Volume 89 reveals that young brides, only just old enough to be legally wed, were routinely married to old men not quite on their deathbeds (because they needed to consummate the marriage) in Wiltshire and Dorset in the 17th to 19th centuries.

Before you reach the wrong conclusions about the good people of Wessex, there is a perfectly rational reason for this apparent misalliance. Joseph Bettey’s paper, called Ancient custom time out of mind, reveals that landowners in the region often granted property leases to tenants for the duration of three lives rather than for a precise number of years. By marrying a leaseholder at an advanced age to a teenage bride, such leases could, theoretically, be made to last up to 200 years.
Joseph Bettey argues that such leases gave tenants the security to invest in buildings and agricultural improvements, such as water meadows, new crops, improved rotations and better livestock management. The tragic downside is revealed by Thomas Hardy’s novel, The Woodlanders (1887), in which the desire of Giles Winterborne to marry his childhood sweetheart, Grace Melbury, is blighted when he is made homeless at the death of his employer, John South, at which point all the houses in the village reverted to the ownership of the lady of the manor.


Shy Englishman beat Galileo
Let this be a lesson to all those who delay publishing the results of their research. A new Science Museum exhibition concerned with the history of astronomy — called Culture & Cosmos — reveals that an Englishman named Thomas Harriot made the first accurate map of the features of the Moon, four months before Galileo; but Harriot, a shy nobleman who never saw the need to publish his work, is now forgotten and unknown, whereas Galileo’s name is synonymous with astronomical discovery.
Harriot was also the first to describe the refraction of light through a lens, but, once again, his failure to publish his findings means that Willebrord Snellius gained the credit 20 years later for what is now known as Snell’s Law. His dislike of the limelight came to the fore when he was imprisoned and interrogated on account of his friendship with some of those involved in the Gunpowder Plot. Harriot denied all knowledge of the conspiracy, saying ‘everyone knows I prefer a life of quiet and devoted study’.
‘He had a nice annual pension from the Earl of Northumberland and he was just interested in the pursuit of knowledge,’ says Alison McCann, of the Sussex Record Office, which holds Harriot’s map of the moon, dated 26 July 1609, and now one of the highlights of the exhibition.

Bristol’s early navigators
Here is another tangled tale of the consequences of academic non-publication. Dr Evan Jones of the University of Bristol has been studying a hitherto unknown (because mis-catalogued) letter in The National Archives dated 12 March 1499 in which Henry VII instructs the Lord Chancellor to suspend an injunction against one William Weston who was about to have his home repossessed for non-payment of rents because the King has asked Weston to ‘pass and sail for to search and find if he can the new found land’.
That royal stay of execution meant that Weston had a powerful motive to get out on to the high seas and not come back until he found something worth reporting to the King. The key question is did Weston ever reach North America to become one of the first Europeans to do so in the wake of Columbus?
The one person who might have known was the historian Alwyn Ruddock. She devoted her life to researching the voyages of John Cabot, who set sail from Bristol for Newfoundland in 1497. Alwyn failed to complete her thesis on Cabot in 1939 because she felt such research was futile as Britain drew closer to war. She eventually drafted a book but destroyed it because it did not meet her own high standards. She began work on a second book but died in 2005, before completing it. She also left strict orders that all her research papers were to be destroyed.
Such exactitude has proved frustrating to those who knew she had found evidence that Bristol mariners were familiar with the rich fishing grounds of North America in the late 15th century, before Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian adventurers started sailing to the Americas on a routine basis. Her reasons for reaching this conclusion went up in flames, but it might be that Weston was just one of several Bristol mariners who benefited from Cabot’s experience and whose names are now, for the most part, lost. ‘I’m now involved in a research project trying to relocate the records that she found,’ Dr Jones says. ‘We need them to find out more.’

The positive sides to recession
Indebtedness can prove a powerful motivator — both Cabot and Weston undertook their dangerous voyages to escape their creditors. Equally ‘a recession can be terribly good for heritage’, says Sir Roy Strong in the recently broadcast BBC 2 series Saving Britain’s Past about the rise of the post-war buildings conservation movement.
Evidence that Sir Roy is right has come from soaring sales at cultural gift shops: the National Trust has hailed 2009 as their best ever year for gift sales as record numbers of people not only decided to take a ‘staycation’ but also abandon High Street shops in search of ‘gifts with soul’.
Other leading cultural institutions, including the Victoria & Albert Museum, the Natural History Museum and Shakespeare’s Globe, are also reporting strong sales as Van Gogh umbrellas, reindeer poo and erotic Romeo & Juliet underwear prove unexpected best sellers. Jigsaws are also selling well, not least the one in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge inviting you to put back together the precious Chinese vase that a careless visitor broke last year. The irony, of course, is that it was Sir Roy who deplored the Saatchi advertising campaign for the V&A in the 1980s that promoted the ‘ace café and shop’ rather than the attached museum. Deplorable or not, it seems we Brits love to shop and regard this as an integral part of a day’s cultural sightseeing.

English Heritage guidebooks not ‘dumbing down’
Perhaps treating yourself to a lavender pomander or jar of lemon curd is a reward for making sense of the guidebook. According to a report in the Sunday Times, many visitors to English Heritage sites find the organisation’s guide books too ‘high-brow’. Apparently, the organisation plans to knock down ‘intellectual barriers’ by writing guides that can be understood by visitors with a reading age of 10 years old.
Nonsense, says English Heritage in its brisk riposte: ‘Reports that English Heritage guidebooks are to be rewritten are completely inaccurate … a tremendous amount of work and scholarship goes into the production of our guides … we would never patronise our readers by dumbing down the contents.’
Perhaps that is just as well given the Sunday Times’ own dismal attempts to show how ‘complex phrases’ can be replaced by ‘simple words’. For example, they suggested that ‘built in the late 3rd century’ should be rephrased ‘built about 1,700 years ago’, ‘northern Europe’ replaced by ‘this part of Europe’ and ‘Jacobean’ by ‘made in the reign of King James I’. Such circumlocutions leave you none the wiser if you simply lack knowledge of the facts to which the words refer.

Post-modern archaeology
For those who find concepts of time depth difficult, there is hope in the growing trend for reflexive post-modern archaeology, which has seen the excavation of Bristol University’s archaeology faculty van, not to mention archaeological recording of English Heritage’s former head office building.
The latest such exercise is this summer’s dig at a campsite dating from the Dark Ages of the 1970s, when it was used as a temporary settlement by a community of long-haired, bead-wearing hippies, attending such ritual events as the Forest of Dean Folk Festival. Worcester Lodge campsite near Coleford, Gloucestershire, has been excavated by Lisa Hill and a team of volunteers as part of her Oxford archaeology thesis. Contrary to expectation, few artefacts were found — just a dozen tent pegs, a set of Allen keys and some loose change.
Maybe Ms Hill should now supplement her work with some oral history (perhaps conducted amongst her older colleagues) from which she might learn that in the era before ubiquitous Coke cans and plastic MacDonalds’ trays, people were a lot less wealthy, a lot more tidy and a lot more concerned about the environment than most festival goers today — and youth groups such as the Boy Scouts often volunteered to clear festival sites of litter in return for a generous donation.

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