By Stuart Frost
Even when I’m off-duty I find it hard to avoid getting engaged with something that has a connection to medieval and Renaissance history. A couple of weekends ago I made a rare foray out of London to visit some friends who live in Pickering, North Yorkshire. I accompanied them and their vintage car to Ryedale Folk Museum in Hutton-le-Hole on the Sunday. I was happy to wander around the village where I used to stay over the summer holidays when I was a young boy.
It was fascinating to explore Ryedale Folk Museum and to see how much I could remember of my childhood visits. I think because I’m so removed from rural life I really enjoyed visiting the farm areas and looking at the different breeds of pigs, hens and so on. I also found it fascinating to explore the reconstructions of period homes and interiors and to try and imagine myself living in the past. Needless to say I spent most of my visit exploring a modern reconstruction of a medieval crofter’s cottage (of around 1450). I’ve included some photographs here.
Perhaps it was because it was a hot and sunny day but the longer I looked at the cottage the more appealing a late medieval crofter’s lifestyle seemed to be. The crofter’s cottage had a greater floorspace than the flat I rent in south-east London. It also had more character, personality and charm: oak beams rather than plasterboard, natural surfaces with rich textures rather than bland modern finishes.The view, looking out onto wooded hillsides rather than grey pebble-dash walls and urban sprawl, was also substantially better. Other plus points included a small but attractive garden filled with practical herbs. In south-east London almost everyone who is fortunate enough to have a garden seems to have covered it with concrete or tarmac.
The design of the house must have encouraged a very close knit and sociable lifestyle: the open fire at the heart of the home, for example, would have a been a focal point for social interaction. Everyone shared the same space.
The late medieval crofter had a lifestyle much more in harmony with nature than our own. They used fewer of the earth’s non-renewable natural resources, created much less pollution and lived a far more sustainable lifestyle. Work was only a short walk away: no two-hour daily commute to cope with. Perhaps if everyone who commutes has a small holding instead there’d be less long faces on the trains and tubes?
The downside of rural life in the fifteenth century are probably fairly obvious and I’m sure visiting the Crofter’s Cottage in the middle of January when food was running low would have led my imaginative flight-of-fancy into a completely different direction. Nevertheless I think it would be fascinating to try and live like a 15th century crofter for a couple of months and to see how the experience compared to modern living. I think the next batch of Big Brother contestants should be asked to live a medieval lifestyle in a reconstructed village: perhaps that really would be a social experiment worth watching?
Click here to find our more about Ryedale Folk Museum.