Melford Hys Companie
Last weekend there was a medieval event not far from where I live. It was put on to celebrate the official launch of the Virtual Museum of the Grace Dieu. The Grace Dieu was a huge ship built for Henry V. It made only one voyage before it was hit by lightning and sank in the River Hamble, near Southampton. The medieval event took place in the River Hamble Country Park, close to where the ship sank.
There were two different groups of medieval re-enactors at the event. One group, the Medieval Free Company, represented a village where there was a leather worker, a fletcher, a woman who made herbal remedies, a scrivener and a basket weaver. Their period is the Wars of the Roses.
The other group was Melford Hys Companie, a group of players. The players doubled up by demonstrating medieval crafts as well as acting. The crafts were woodturning, felting, spinning and basket weaving.
On the woodturning front I learned that greenwood was used to make household objects, such as bowls, rather than dry wood. I’m sure the reason for this was explained, but I can’t remember it. I do remember that the wood warps as it dries, as you can see from the bowl on the end of the woodturner’s workbench.
One of the women in the group spins and I asked her some questions. I’ve never understood how spinning works and she was kind enough to explain it to me, whilst demonstrating. From her I learned that rich women did not spin. This was a bit of a blow, as I have a scene in my current work in progress where two very rich women sit down and spin together.
Another thing I learned was that, although medieval depictions of women spinning show them holding a spindle and a distaff at the same time, it’s perfectly possible to spin without a distaff. After the demonstration, I was allowed to have a go and enjoyed it. Later in the day I realised that the basket full of fleece, carding implements and spare spindles was intended for children, but I was very grateful to have had the chance to try. I was so engrossed in what the spinner was doing that I forgot to take a photograph, but I was very inspired by my lesson and bought a spindle so that I can carry on practising.
To my great joy, pea pottage was on the menu for lunch for the players. You can see the peas and carrot and rosemary in the pot. There’s also onion, garlic and a bit of bacon in there. They were aiming for something fairly substantial and used marrowfat peas soaked overnight. Somebody had to sit and watch the pot all the time to make sure that the fire didn’t go out and that the pottage didn’t get too dry. It was quite windy, so there was a constant danger of the sparks setting fire to something.
The pottage must have done the job, because it all disappeared and I saw the pot watcher doing the washing up in the pot after lunch. Another lesson learned – pots are expensive and can be dual purpose.
Two of the women were working on felting projects. One was for children. The other, most decidedly, was not.
Felt bosoms for the actors
The bosoms are to enable the male actors to look the part when they have to play female roles.
I only saw part of the felting process, but a rough pattern was made from a piece of linen cloth and the fleece placed on both sides of it. The wool was made wet and soaped. It was placed on a board and the woman making the prop had to keep rubbing it so that the fibres stuck together and shrank. The finished object was quite a bit smaller than the pattern.
On the right of the photograph you can see the knife with which she shaved off pieces of soap into the mug of water.
In the other camp there was a scrivener, who explained about how ink was made with ground oak apples, coperas (ferrous sulphate) and gum. On his table you can see cuttlefish for drying the ink on the page; a triple baked loaf of bread for polishing parchment; and a wax tablet for a learner writer. You can also see a part of his bow, as all men were supposed to know how to shoot.
If you look carefully on his writing desk, you’ll see a printed pamphlet and he’s writing on paper. Paper was used in the fourteenth century, but printing had not been invented.
Leather worker’s tent
The leather worker made sheaths for swords and daggers, as well as belts, flasks and pouches. Whilst his leather and some of his goods were arranged tidily, you can see that he was rather careless with his armour.
There was also a fletcher in the Wars of the Roses village. He demonstrated how arrows could be made to fit individuals, but the majority of arrows which went to France with archers were not made to order. They were made in what were essentially factories, churning out arrows for the English armies. As the fletcher explained, you did not have to be a particularly good archer, or have made-to-measure arrows, to succeed in a battle. An enemy army provided quite a large target and any arrow fired in its general direction would probably hit something. He also said that, in his younger days, he could let off a further two arrows before his first had landed, which goes some way to explaining why Welsh and English archers were so successful and so feared.
I was surprised by the different types of points I saw on the arrows. One looked like a fork and another like a knife. One had a very vicious-looking barb on it.
I had a very enjoyable day out with the re-enactors. It is one thing to read about how something is done, and another to see it being done. Best of all, I’ve got an inkling of an idea about a novel from it.