Tonight, I attended a public talk at Plymouth University. The speaker, Prof James Daybell, gave a fascinating insight into the lives of women in the sixteenth century, using a variety of different routes 'behind the curtain', including samplers and court records amongst others. This is the first in a series of talks about women in history, which promises to be extremely interested and varied - check out the links at the end of the post to see the other subjects being discussed.
In the talk I usually give after each performance of WITCH, I point out to the audience that in Margery's time (1580s-ish), the concept of "privacy" was almost non-existent and certainly totally different to the way we live today. Prof Daybell discussed how this makes it quite difficult to unpick 'privacy' in the context of sixteenth century women, particularly educated women who lived their lives surrounded by bodyservants and relatives.
From samplers to love letters to divorce petitions, the talk demonstrated just how much information may be gleaned about women's lives from seemingly mundane objects. I have always loved samplers, so I was particularly interested in Prof Daybell's decoding of his example. The young needlewoman was not simply producing a beautiful piece of work to demonstrate her skill - this is only part of it. In order to create the sampler, which in this case commemorated the birth of a female cousin, she is using maths and lettering. This, together with her skill with a needle, suggests that she was educated and was developing a skillset that would stand her in good stead when she entered the marriage market.
Deanes Grimmerton, the inspiration for Margery, was accused of witchcraft after sharing a pipe of tobacco - a neighbourly act involving a simple, everyday object. I was, therefore, particularly interested in just how much information may be unpacked from the mundane - I will certainly view samplers through a different lens from now on.
One of the sources Prof Daybell mentioned is a collection of letters to doctors, written by women. This certainly bears some investigation in the context of Margery's role as her community's healer. I was also extremely interested to hear about a collection of family medical records which have been passed down from relative to relative, documenting their recipes for cures and clearly demonstrating the extent of the medical knowledge present in this particular family. This would be a very valuable insight for me, as it would give examples of the sort of salves and poultices being made - if the collection contains a recipe for relieving toothache which involves cloves and ginger, I would very much like to see if I can recreate it - and if I could recreate it as Margery would have done in her rudimentary shelter after she lost her house and possessions. That is an experiment for another day and another blog.
The evening ended with a very civilised (small) glass of merlot and nibbles and the chance to chat with other attendees. It was an extremely interesting way to spend an evening - although I did then have to drive for an hour in the rain and gales, which was an experience of an entirely different sort...
I can highly recommend this series of public lectures. If you can get to one of them, do!
You can find out about Prof Daybell here: www.plymouth.ac.uk/staff/james-daybell
and about the series of lectures here: www.plymouth.ac.uk/whats-on/women-in-history-lecture-series