Exploring Medieval Birmingham: Part III
As I’ve discovered, the model is already inspiring interest in Birmingham’s medieval past, and, for some, it’s presenting what they once saw as a dull topic in a vibrant and accessible way. Conversations so far have ranged from serious discussions about what the archaeology from the Bull Ring excavations can tell us about Birmingham in the Middle Ages, to me discussing with people which houses we’d like to live in. The latter point isn’t as trivial a topic as you might think, because imagining is part of ‘experiencing’ and understanding history. The success of this display will be based on visitors not simply viewing the archaeology as ‘lifeless’ objects, but by making the link between the objects and the people who made them, used them, or sold them. So, don’t feel silly for imagining which house you’d live in or where you’d work. This is a good starting point for beginning to understand what life must have been like for our medieval ancestors.
Birmingham in 1300. Any houses that take your fancy?
The model sits at the centre of the new medieval gallery, Origins, and this is deliberate. It’s not a stand-alone interactive, as it has been designed to act as a ‘gateway’ for understanding all of the medieval objects on display in the gallery. This brings me on to one of my favourite objects; the skull of a hunting dog. It’s most likely the skull of a greyhound, one of the oldest breeds of dog known to man. The skull dates from the 14th century and was actually found at Weoley Castle, around six miles from Birmingham city centre.
Skull of a hunting dog now on display in the new History Galleries, Birmingham: Its People, Its History.
So, how is it relevant to the model of medieval Birmingham? Well, the de Birmingham lords would have also kept greyhounds, and we know this from the extensive deer park that existed next door to the town.
William de Birmingham hunting in his deer park.
In fact, the deer park existed before the town. The manor of Birmingham covered an even larger area stretching from the River Rea in Digbeth at one end, to Edgbaston at the other. The town Peter de Birmingham founded in 1166 occupied a small patch of land within the manor in comparison, but as the town became more successful, the subsequent de Birmingham lords released more of their deer park, until eventually it was absorbed by the expanding town.
The water-filled ditch in the middle of the image acted as the boundary line of the town. By 1300, tanning pits were occupying what was once the deer park.
The greyhound skull can tell us a lot about how land usage gradually changed in medieval Birmingham. Any self-respecting lord of the manor had a deer park because venison was a luxury meat and being able to invite your friends over to hunt was a sure sign of status. For the de Birminghams to ‘sacrifice’ something that represented their social standing, the town had to be prospering, and it was. Initially it was probably ‘topping-up’ their annual income, but the realisation of the town’s success and potential convinced them to release more land from their manor. This allowed the town over time to get bigger and meet the growing demand of trade. The idea of lordship was changing and land usage was changing with it. The town was now becoming the status indicator rather than the deer park.
Greyhounds were bred for the nobility in the Middle Ages and any ‘commoner’ caught with one would be severely punished and the dog killed. This was seen as a justifiable act to preserve hunting rights.
My greys running on Bamburgh beach this year and probably why I’m obsessed with this object! The breed is still favoured for its speed and agility today.
We can use this object to understand how feudalism was breaking down in Birmingham and England as a whole. The park was becoming gradually less important as the town prospered. That’s to say that the deer park was now more valuable to the lord as part of the town, than it was as his hunting ground. The economy was no longer solely based on feudal obligations, whereby peasants worked the land for the lord in return for living on his manor. We know that in Birmingham as early as 1232, sixteen townsmen had come to an agreement with William de Birmingham (an earlier William than the one featured in our model) to free themselves from their haymaking duties. It was more beneficial to William for these merchants and tradesmen to sell their goods at market and support the growth of his town, than to help out with this communal obligation. This was part of the gradual move from a land-based economy to a money-based economy.
By this stage, the lord of the manor was looking outwards rather than inwards, beyond the boundaries of the manor, as it was trade from the wider area that would secure the success of his town and his status as lord. Owning a town within your manor was now part of the aspirations of the aristocracy, and while deer parks were by no means out of fashion, it seems that for the de Birminghams, at least, entrepreneurial vision had superseded hunting pursuits in the ranks of lordly endeavours.
A successful investment! The market triggered Birmingham’s growth and the town continued to expand gradually into the rest of the manor.
Remember that the new History Galleries, Birmingham, Its People, Its History opens next month on 12th October.
Keep up to date with the progress of the galleries by following me on Twitter @CinnamonLatte17.
Sarah Hayes, Freelance Curator