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Downton Meadhall

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Anyone for deference? 

Or knows of any good book going into the history of domestic service in medieval times, or anything like our period?  Only in the course of actual writing of this kiddies’ book of mine it has borne in on me that I know too little in any detail as to just what domestic servants would be doing at this or that point in the day and, more importantly, how interpersonal relations between household servants and the eorlisc folk actually worked out, on a day-to-day basis.

Awkwardly, I found only one decent history book about domestic service in Peterborough Central Library.  Of this the first chapter proved to be a round-up of what little is known about domestic service before mid-Victorian times, what with this being an ill-recorded aspect of social history because it was not considered worth writing about, at the time.  What little seems to be known, for instance that in Jacobean times the gentry thought nothing of roping their servants into parlour games whereas, by Late Victorian times, domestic staff had become “living statues” with whom any kind of social interaction was more or less unthinkable, or that in Elizabethan times there was nothing infra dig about young noblemen functioning as personal servants, all left me less confident than before about how this side of life worked out in an Old English meadhall, whether in early tenth-century Mercia or elsewhither.

The remaining chapters concentrated on the 1850s-1950s phase although that has persuaded me that social, personal and practical reasons would tend to conspire to re-create a position roughly equivalent to a Victorian lady’s maid in any male-dominated, hierarchical society in which domestic servants were normal.  Eanflaed knows because that’s what the “lady-in-waiting [ who] strung Lady Ethelflæda’s bow with a jerk as unfeminine as it was professional” she’s read about, when Lord Athelred’s court tools up for the wolfhunt, amounts to.  She’s called Heregyth of Gloucester by the way and she’s shaping up as an astute and resourceful right-hand woman, as well as a trusted confidante, of her mistress.  Likewise I was relieved and a bit chuffed to feel vindicated in something I had already portrayed, that most ealdormenn and many another high-status warrior have a sword-bearer whose functions cover roughly the same ground as those of a batman/ valet/ gentleman’s gentleman/ kind of thing.  So much so that some of mine don’t do any actual sword-bearing, it’s just a way to denominate a senior manservant who enjoys his lord’s personal confidence ( and either way some boy had to polish the sword).

Yet none of that leaves me very far ahead.  Maybe the Victorian custom of “living statues” is close to how slaves were regarded by eorlisc folk, and again, as Eanflaed has read, already I’ve portrayed the slaves in Lord Edgekeen’s hall as the only ones who don’t stare clean through the slaves.  Also I just happen to be reading Inventing the Individual by Larry Siedentop ( Penguin Books 2014, ISBN 978-0-141-00954-4, tasty bit of intellectual history, don’t miss it) and he refers to the Classical world’s attitude to slaves as that of “living tools” who were “socially dead” and how, whilst that attitude waned under Christian influence, it was still one to be reckoned with in Carolingian times.  Correct me if I’m wrong Eanflaed, but I don’t think I can be accused of romanticising our period when it comes to the cruelties of slavery.  I think I’ve pulled only the punches one had better pull in a book targeted at nine-to-fourteen-year-olds.   

I’m certainly still in two minds as to how the status-consciousness of more recent domestic servants, and their own hierarchies, are any kind of bum-steer for how well or badly their Old English counterparts resembled them.  One can imagine how free servants would dislike being confused with the slaves, but would other free commoners regard their work as demeaning in an age when ‘democratic rights and civil liberties’ was a meaningless jumble of syllables, and the rest of society was one, big pecking order anyway?  I can believe that bagsing the candle-ends would be a perquisite for a senior servant in a meadhall as it once was in stately homes, but what could be the equivalent of slivers of soap or indeed their high folk’s old clothes?  If a pious hláford or hlǽfdiġe preferred to give cast-offs to the poor, would servants resent a mæsse-préost who encouraged him or her to do so? 

And so on.

Then one of the women in my life lent me the DVD of Gosford Park.  Which proved to be far better than I expected and the success of which, I learned, gave rise to that series Downton Abbey.  This I have been cheerfully ignoring all these years, but lately snapped up a DVD of the first series in the Bernado’s across the road.

All of which has got me thinking again.  Things like, “What’s that bolshy cow mean by moving in on the village hospital?” “Ooooh, what a lovely horse!” “Eugh, a left-footman!” “Ooh... more lovely horses” and “Keep an eye on that gobby Fenian stirrer of a chauffeur, I would” and yet, also, what might be the Old English equivalent to having one’s morning newspaper ironed for one?  And please nobody say “Run over a herald with an oxwain”: serious suggestions as there is a serious chance, here, to strike a blow against preconceptions of the Old English as rough and rustic folk ( think of Cedric’s meadhall in Ivanhoe) and here is an opportunity to make clear that they must have had their fair share of social niceties, even if we are thrown back on guesswork for just what form they took.  Already my child characters of ċeorlisc backgrounds have learned that “worshipping with the woses” is a courtly U-phemism for answering a call of nature, that it’s non-U to blow your nose on tablecloths, and how to hitch a cloak so U don’t trawl up a wake of rushes behind you when presenting yourself to your hláford at his friþ-seat.

The other hitch is that, forced to lean on distant times and places for the broad strokes, I fear my portrayals of Lord Athelred’s court, and of the households of those his ealdormenn on which it is billeted, in action will begin to slither towards Downton Abbey despite my better judgement.  If they haven’t already and they really mustn’t.  They have to stand on their own as a plausible re-creations of life at an early medieval Old English court ( or an ealdormann’s household well on its way to evolving into a court, which is the stage Lord Athelred’s has reached at the time my child characters show up there) consonant with the best historical knowledge, no matter to how many imaginary substitutes for the real details I end up resorting. 

Which is where you, my fellow ġesìþas come in!  Any chance of shouting out some suggestions folks, or at least a reality check?  Or can anyone recommend any other sources of information about domestic service, as long ago as possible?  So far Downton Abbey has helped most in making me realise why the Frankish legate to Lord Athelred’s court had to be replaced, if you remember that misadventure with the oversexed Turkish diplomat who croaked in Lady Mary Crawley’s room, in episode two. 

( Foreigners, huh.)

PS: It did occur to me that the tensions ( not to say turf battles) that could crop up between head cooks and head butlers in stately homes may well be innate to the organisation of an Old English meadhall too, only it would be the head cook ( out in the cookhouse or bakehouse) wiþ the head steward/ seneschal.  However, my portrayal is a special case in which Lady Ethelflæda is effectively her and her husband’s own head steward, so their court doesn’t bother with a formal or official one, so-named.  Until Lord Athelred’s death of course, when her nibs has to worry more about dragonships than sauce boats.   

PPS: Not that the lady of the hall’s duties were wholly domestic.  What else I have discovered is that medieval manors invariably had an adjoining ‘home farm’ that supplied the day-to-day and maybe other needs of the household.  Insofar as a medieval noblewoman oversaw the running of her household ( viz, didn’t leave it all to a steward or seneschal) the ‘woman’s domain’ was hardly confined to childcare, cooking, needlework and housekeeping, but called for some knowledge of farming, estate management and market mechanisms too.  I have portrayed Lady Ethelflæda drawing upon hers in a ( hopefully not boring) passing mention of how she teaches mathematics to my child characters, counting in sesters of honey and sheaves of barley.

PPPS: How on earth can a series like Downton Abbey need eight stuntmen?  Nobody’s begun jumping out of windows yet, that I can see, or even cleared a hedge on horseback high enough to pull negative Gs on the way down ( which can cause accidents as this gives your head an adrenaline ‘high’ – the stereotype of the happy-brained tally-ho foxhunter does have a basis in reality).  Nineteen twelve is too early for Fathers for Justice and anyhow they knew how to dress in those days, the costumes would be splashy enough.  Does the series end in the Trenches or does somebody run away to join a circus?

The moral right of the author to identify that stoneware mixing bowl in the kitchens on Gosford Park, used by Mrs Croft the head cook, as exactly the same make as his mother had in the early 1970s, when he was little, has been asserted.

I haven't read it yet, Bowerthane, but "The Meadhall" by Stephen Pollington (Anglo-Saxon Books) might help a bit. There are some helpful-looking chapter headings anyway. Otherwise, you may have to use guesswork about slaves etc, after all if there is no information available you can't be proved wrong! Unless you get really fanciful, which I'm sure you won't. Just go with your gut on it - as an AS lord, what would you think about slaves (if you thought at all about them!)?

“The Meadhall” by Stephen Pollington (Anglo-Saxon Books) might help a bit.

Aha, right! That sounds as if it ought to, doesn’t it?  I’m tracking down a copy as you read this...

[A]fter all if there is no information available you can't be proved wrong!

Well yes I could just make up shit exploit this opportunity to be as creative as I like and otherwise Just Get The Hell On With It.  And to a certain extent I already have, if only ‘cause I’ve no bleedin’ choice.  As newbies at court my child characters have been warned, “Don’t use the slaves’ well, they’ll spit in your drink!” and I’ve made mention of slaves having other perquisites.  General ones such as them having the left-overs left by the free servants who, in turn, are entitled to the left-overs from any banquets and the like, or local ones such as a Yuletide custom for Lord Ceolfrith of the Lyme and Wirral to ride back from his St Stephen’s Day hunt through his front doors and drop the hares, birds, squirrels etc. the children have bagged on the way back at the foot of his longhearth, as a Yuletide treat for his slaves.  Those who work in and around Lord Guthlaf’s hall in Staffordshire get black puddings made from the blood of the boars he, Lord Athelred, Lady Ethelflæda and my child characters have been out hunting, as part of the end-of-harvest merrymaking, and so on.

Yet all this only focuses attention on quite how the free, unfree and the elite interacted and quite how they regarded one another.  And I don’t know whether to trust myself with any answers to the question “as an AS lord, what would you think about slaves” because I’m not really, am I?  I’m a legatee of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment and, in particular, there’s too much of Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill and Ayn Rand in me to look upon the very idea of human slavery with anything but triple-barrelled loathing.  The real me would set ‘em all free.  If not before you can say “William Wilberforce” because, he found and as Adam Smith could have warned him, the incentives to learn a skill in slavery are almost as bad as the promotional prospects, so I’d organise some sort of apprentice scheme, first.  And improve the pay and conditions of the free servants.  And build a school for the children, give women the vote, hang Tony Blair etc.   

Would anyone else please throw in any thoughts and suggestions?  I wondered if any ġesìþas, if working or holidaying abroad, had any queer or disturbing experiences of societies less egalitarian than ours that might be suggestive?  One such I’ve pinched adapted that I heard off an ex-RAF, ex-policewoman who worked as a personal bodyguard to an eight-year-old Saudi princess.  Who in her innocence wanted a baby, an actual human baby, to play with and which her bodyguard, in her innocence, took for just a sweet little girl’s pipe dream when she left for a few weeks’ break back in Blighty.  Only to find on her return that, there in his or her own little crib, lay... a real human baby.  With whom the girl was playing, procured I shudder to think how by her loving parents.  This I have shamelessly plagiarised creatively re-worked as a story brought back from Constantinople by an Old English ealdormann and his kindred, entertained as guests by the Emperor Leo IV on their way to Jerusalem, and it is his eight-winters-old daughter they overhear wanting a baby to play with.  Of which they think much the same as the bodyguard until, as guests again on their way back from Jerusalem, sure enough there’s this real human baby.  With whom the girl, a little Byzantine princess, is playing. 

Saudi Arabia is the least bad comparison I can think of to how the Old English thought, insofar as any of them did ever think, of Byzantium, give or take the reputation the Indian princess had for opulence and despotism amongst the Victorians.  Beats me whether there is or ever was any better comparison, so by all means improve on that, who can!

PS:  I may have solved The Downton Abbey Mystery about the eight stuntmen.  If you slow-reel the scenes at the flower show, you can see a mixed martial arts fight break out just above Lady Violet, the Dowager Countess of Grantham’s right ear.  Then when the Earl of Grantham is having that Serious Talk with the young Duke of Crowborough, flitting behind them you can catch Barrow the left-footman taking a running jump out of the window screaming, “What d’you expect me to do, live a lie?”  Then in the deleted scenes you find that Lady Cora, the current Countess of Grantham exercises the same way as Lady Agatha out of The Curse of the Claw, on the trapeze.  Less than becoming for an English noblewoman of Edwardian times maybe, but one must make allowances.  She’s a Yank.

Unless of course there was any gunplay I missed.

The moral right of the author to be identified as the Black Fingernail has been asserted.

Oh cripes...

I was watching Neil Oliver's series on the Vikings tonight (BBC 4 on play back) and he discussed the Vikings' slave trade at length in the second programme of the series, which might be of interest to your researches, Bowerthane. One thing he mentioned was that there appeared to be a hierarchy of slaves - some slave collars excavated in Dublin are more ornate and better quality than others. He speculated that the really flash collar could have gone round the neck of a captive king...Obviously this may not reflect Anglo-Saxon practices but at least it's contemporary.


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