Big Brother Medieval (and Renaissance) Style

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. Crofter's Cottage, Ryedale Folk Museum.

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.Crofter's Cottage, Ryedale Folk Museum.

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.

2 thoughts on “Big Brother Medieval (and Renaissance) Style

Belinda Osborn:

Every year at the end of August, I and my fellow re-enactors from Rosa Mundi provide a living history display at Ryedale Folk Museum. We set up 15-20 authentic tents around the Crofter’s cottage and live, eat and sleep medieval for an entire weekend. During ‘public’ hours we demonstrate different crafts and cooking techniques (within the cottage itself) and try to depict life as closely as possible to medieval times. In the evenings we gather within the cottage around the fire and tell tales and imbibe ale until the wee, small hours. Personally, I can’t think of a better way to spend a bank holiday week-end. Far too good for Big Brother contestants! Come and see us on the 24th and 25th August, the after hours are the most surreal, when all is completely dark apart from the candles and lanterns in the tents and the fire within the cottage. Even when it rains (this is North Yorks after all) it’s great – you can’t beat the smell of wet wool and wood smoke!

Frost Stuart:

Your description sounds fantastic – even the bit about wet wool and woodsmoke. Does living medieval style give you any insights into the medieval mind? I’d imagine it must do!

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