Historian Michael Wood delves through medieval court records to follow the fortunes of a village in Hertfordshire and, more particularly, the family of peasant Christina Cok. The 14th century was a perilous time in British history, shot through with famine, plague and war. It was a time of climate change, virulent cattle diseases and, above all, the Black Death. But it was also the time when modern mentalities were shaped, not just by the rulers but increasingly by the common people. It was the beginning of the end of serfdom, the growth of individual freedom and the start of a capitalist market economy.
Michael chooses an everyday story of a medieval country family through which to illustrate the bigger picture of how the character and destiny of ordinary British people was being shaped. It is history told not from the top of society but from the bottom - and especially through the eyes of the forgotten half of the workforce, women.
Michael brings to life the story of a 14th-century extended family: peasant Christina Cok, her father Hugh, estranged husband William, and her children John and Alice. Michael shows us that though their lives might at first seem quite alien, you only have to scratch below the surface to find uncanny connections with modern-day Britons. In them, you can see our beginnings as a nation of shopkeepers and the roots of the British love affair with beer and football. Perhaps more importantly is the triumph of that sturdy and cussed streak of individualism that has been a characteristic of 'Britishness' down the centuries.
Christina: A Medieval Life
A journey back to the 14th century is enlivened by Michael Wood's infectious enthusiasm
By Sam Wollaston, The Guardian, Tuesday 6 May 2008
'The court book is simply a record of who paid how much tax. But it's from 700 years ago, so that makes it fantastically interesting' ... Michael Wood, Christina: A Medieval Life (BBC4)
Medievalists are a funny lot. There are plenty of them to enjoy in Christina: A Medieval Life (BBC4). Here's Cathy Flower-Bond, a historian, cooking a pot of kale-flavoured cracked-grain porridge over an open fire in her adobe hut. John Roberts, a woodsman, chops faggots. The aptly named Jo White-Brewster stirs her ale with a wooden paddle. The ploughman, who should be called Piers but is actually a Chris, yokes up his oxen, ready for work. And Michael Wood, whose film this is, bounds happily between them, testing the porridge, sniffing in the ale fumes, drooling over the Luttrell Psalter and other old manuscripts. These are people who are only truly happy when fully immersed in the distant past.
We're in the early 14th century, in the village of Codicote in Hertfordshire, trying to piece together the life of the unfortunately named peasant Christina Cok. Michael, in special manuscript-handling gloves, pores over the Codicote court book, searching for any reference to her. A court book may be a useful tool to the historian, but it's actually a fantastically boring thing - simply a record of who paid how much tax for what. But it's from 700 years ago, so that makes it fantastically interesting.
I am imagining Michael if he had been born 700 years later, and was making a film about now. A film about my life perhaps - Sam: A 21st-Century Life. Here he is, in his special gloves, delicately holding my bank statement, and beaming with excitement. "On May 5 2008, Sam spent £24.99, a fairly sizable sum in those days, at Homebase." Then Michael heads off to the National Archive, still in his special gloves, to dig out an ancient copy of the Homebase catalogue to see what I might have spent my £24.99 on. (A strimmer, if you're interested. And if you're wondering why Michael didn't just go online, that's because the internet ate itself in the late 22nd century, at the time of the great flood.)
Anyway, back to the past. The Christina device doesn't really work, because there simply isn't enough about her in the court book. Her father, Hugh Cok (I bet the lads in the village called him Huge after a few mugs of nettle ale), pays this amount of tax in this year. Then he hands over his holdings and tenements to his daughter Christina. Now she's married, with a property in the market. Oh dear, and now she's dead; her death duty is her sow, worth four shillings.
I can see the idea - to personalise history, give us non-medievalists something to get a handle on, using a young woman's story as an easy way into the complexities of medieval life. But I'm just not really getting a sense of this lady from her tax receipts. To be honest, I wasn't even that sad to hear she was dead. She was in her 60s after all, a bloody good innings in those days.
It doesn't really matter, though: Michael is lovely, and his enthusiasm is infectious. I'm watching not for Christina, but for him - and for Cathy, Jo, John and Chris. You're living in the past, all of you. And you're fascinating.
I'm a bit depressed about my sex life after watching Generation Sex (Fiver). I don't do any daisy-chaining or snowballing, pegging or spidermanning. There's all this exciting stuff going on, that absolutely everyone is doing, apparently. Except me. I don't even have a "fuck buddy", for God's sake. Who, in 2008, doesn't have a fuck buddy? Christina probably had one, way back then. She'd call in on Mick the Miller, for her oats, so to speak. Nothing heavy, just a roll in the chaff, then back to the fields. It would be in the court book, if the court book were more interesting.
Actually I'm less depressed, now that I've Googled some of these people who are telling me they're doing all this stuff, all these so-called "journalists", "comedians", "reality TV stars", "actors" and "socialites". You're all just horrible, desperate people who'll say anything to get on TV. I bet some of you don't even do half of it. Makey-uppy people, makey-uppy TV. Still, if anyone out there fancies a new f ... no, maybe this is the wrong forum for that.
God, Flood (ITV1) was long. And dull. And wet. And it reminded me why I live in Dollis Hill, not down by the river. Ha!
Christina – a Medieval Life (BBC4)
By James Walton, Daily Telegraph
Published: 12:01AM BST 06 May 2008
If you think we’re living in bureaucratic times now, then Christina – a Medieval Life (BBC4) brought reassuring news that it could be worse. You could be living in the early 14th century. In those days, everything you owned was carefully entered in official records, and strict laws applied to the most innocuous-seeming of activities. Anybody trying to bypass the local miller, for example, by grinding their own corn would have their grinding stones confiscated –sometimes to make a new patio for the local abbot. And naturally their crime would be recorded too.
Seven hundred years later, of course, this mania for bureaucracy has turned out to be invaluable. As a result of it, historian Michael Wood could here give us an extraordinarily vivid account of how even some of the poorest people lived.
Christina Cock was born around 1285 in Codicote, Hertfordshire, where her father, Hugh, had to work the landlord’s fields along with those he rented from him. Even so, by consulting some of the 175km of shelving in the National Archives, Wood established that Hugh managed to double his tax liability in only 30 years of backbreaking toil. (By 1307 it was 13¾d.)
At a time when women’s finances were especially precarious, he then set up Christina with a stall in Codicote market, where peasants were taking their first steps towards economic freedom by selling their surplus. Many years later, Christina was able to give her own daughter, Alice, a shop to run – which, because medieval maps were so scrupulous, we know was on the site of today’s As You Like It Chinese restaurant.
Christina’s life also served as a springboard for Wood to make several and often surprising wider points. It seems, for instance, that medieval peasants not only had some rights, but knew them well enough to prosecute their landlords (sometimes even successfully). The Great Famine of 1315-6, we learned, was caused by catastrophic – and presumably not man-made – climate change.
In the circumstances, it was impossible not to share Wood’s awed excitement at finding all this stuff written down so clearly. Nonetheless, he didn’t just stick to official documents. We also got medieval poems, protest songs, graffiti, cookbooks and even a medieval gag (about, as it turns out, what thieves millers are). These duly added to the stirring sense that we were dealing here with people not only real, but also unexpectedly recognisable. The result was yet another example of BBC4 at its considerable best.
Legends: Val Doonican Rocks first appeared on BBC4 too – but last night was given a welcome transfer to BBC2. Anybody hoping for a work of crunching revisionism will, I suppose, have been disappointed. The nearest the programme came to controversy was when an Irish academic argued that Delaney’s Donkey and Paddy McGinty’s Goat are uncomfortably close to stage Oirishry. (This was then put to Val, who cheerfully agreed.) Otherwise, the consensus from everybody interviewed is that beneath that unflaggingly nice exterior, the man is unflaggingly nice.
Faced with this awkward fact, the documentary would perhaps have been within its rights to become a bit dull. Instead, it managed to combine its obvious affection with a sharp awareness of how much Val’s career was entwined with postwar Irish history – and with a type of showbusiness that’s now long gone. (One surprise here was to be reminded that Val remained a TV fixture until 1990.) Yet, in keeping with its subject, it did this without ever straining for effect. After all, as one critic once put it, “The great thing about being Val Doonican is that you know you’re not going to lose your voice.”