You’d be forgiven for thinking that South Yorkshire doesn’t have much of a Medieval past. Brought up in Sheffield, our local history lessons in school focused mainly on nineteenth and twentieth-century mining. The local museums in Rotherham, Barnsley and Sheffield, though featuring excellent work on the region’s more modern industrial heritage, failed to engage very much with the Middle Ages.
Recently, though, this has started to change. March 2014 marked the first birthday of the Tinsley Manor Project, a three-year National Lottery-funded scheme with Wessex Archaeology, Heeley City Farm and Tinsley Junior School. An education venture involving academics, primary school students, teachers and the local community, the Project is investigating the remains of a medieval manor house that was demolished in the 1960s through archaeological digs and the collation of oral histories.
The popularity of the project and the enthusiasm of volunteers and participants of all ages is clear, demonstrating the public’s engagement and passionate interest in previously undiscovered histories. Yet so many more documents relating to Medieval Tinsley, documents, that can illustrate so much about the way of life of so many, remain in Sheffield Archives, inaccessible to the people engaged and engrossed in the Manor’s stories. That’s where we come in.
In August, the University of Sheffield’s History Department began work on Unravelling Tinsley’s Court Rolls, an archival project examining the twelfth- to fifteenth-century documents relating to the Manor. These legal documents, the minutes taken from local court proceedings, might initially sound a bit dry. They deal with cases involving rent amounts and economic structures. But they are in fact some of the most vibrant and fascinating documents that survive, relatively intact, from the Middle Ages.
Allowing us to piece together the social and economic lives of people across the social spectrum in Medieval Tinsley, court rolls offer exciting glimpses into the everyday worlds of peasants through to lords, illuminating the ‘ordinary’. Wives appear on court rolls, almost on equal terms with their husbands. Details of patronage and payment reveal the rituals and cultures of rural life. Family trees can be pieced together, and social movements of families and individuals traced over time.
Though written in Latin, and with a strict, formulaic structure, these are exciting documents. Our aim is to shed some light on them, making them as accessible and as exciting to the public as we can. In our initial research on the rolls, we’ve already found specific and strange discrepancies and mysteries of language that we hope to clarify and solve.
We will be transcribing a number of key sections from these unique, strange documents and summing up many more, to be used by future historians, local history groups and individual genealogists. To further advance their potential as a source body for students, we want to create a database, forming an easy to use and quick to find resource. By creating family trees, understanding relationships between groups and individuals and in contrasting this material in a nation-wide context, we hope to create interesting and stimulating teaching aids to be used in primary schools, working with teachers to demonstrate our findings through re-enactments, art and storytelling.
The Tinsley Court Rolls, we believe, are one of the greatest untapped medieval resources in the Sheffield Archives. As a body of material, they offer so much detail of the everyday transactions, people and relationships that made up Medieval Tinsley.
The project launch takes place on Thursday 11 September, from 6pm in the foyer of Jessop West, University of Sheffield. More details here.
Liz Goodwin and Laura Alston are PhD students in the Department of History.
Image: Tinsley Manor Rolls, courtesy of Sheffield Archives.