Who Were the de Birminghams?

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An impression of what the de Birmingham manor house may have looked liked in the 13th century.  © Birmingham Museums

The 12th century was a period when the popularity of surnames increased and started to become hereditary. One such type was the ‘locational’ surname, which denoted where a person lived or came from. Birmingham is part of that group, as it represents a physical settlement. At this point though, surnames were unstable and likely to change depending on where a person was living or moved to. So, who were the family who assumed the de Birmingham name by at least the 12th century, and primed the town for its later industrial success?

The first reference we have to the de Birminghams is in the 12th century and we know that they were living in a moated-manor house centred upon what was to become Moat Lane car park, hence where the car park takes its name. The Anglo-Norman language had already made its mark on the country by this point, which can be detected by the adoption of the prefixes ‘le’ and ‘de’ before many surnames. This in itself raises an interesting point that many historians have been and are still asking: were the de Birminghams of Norman or Anglo-Saxon ancestry? The answer to that question unfortunately cannot be answered as there simply isn’t enough documentary evidence to state either way, but let’s take a look at what we do know.

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The Bayeux Tapestry depicting the Battle of Hastings in 1066, marking the end of Anglo-Saxon rule.

It’s been estimated that only eight percent of England’s land remained in the hands of Anglo-Saxons after the Conquest, as the event marked a complete transfer of estates from ‘natives’ to the newly conquering noble class. It seems likely to many historians therefore, that the de Birminghams were most probably of Norman ancestry rather than Anglo-Saxon. However, they weren’t top-ranking nobles so to speak, but part of the middling tiers, so for some historians it’s feasible to suggest that they may have equally been of Anglo-Saxon origin. After all, the first reference of them owning land is from the early 12th century, nearly 150 years after the Conquest, giving Anglo-Saxon families, particularly those with political ambitions, plenty of time to settle in to the fabric of this ‘new’ country. Also, it was often political affiliations that counted, not necessarily cultural, meaning that the latter wouldn’t prevent advancement through the ranks.

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Passage from Domesday listing a Richard as the named holder of Birmingham in 1086.

The surname of the tenant holding the manor of Birmingham at the time of Domesday in 1086 was unrecorded; all we know is that his first name was Richard. The first named de Birmingham was a William who was ‘enfeoffed’, or given land in exchange for a pledge of service to his overlords during the reign of Henry I, sometime between 1100-1135. William’s son, Peter, is perhaps the best known de Birmingham as it was his shrewd business sense that secured the town’s growth with his purchase of a market charter in 1166. So, we can confidently say that from at least 1135, and very possibly before then, the family who were to own and cultivate the manor of Birmingham adopted the name of that manor as their own.

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The town of Birmingham would eventually ‘burst its banks’ and outgrow not only its own manor, but swallow the many manors around it to become Britain’s second city. © Birmingham Museums

They were, in fact, small fry in regards to their lordly status, and if we were thinking about this in terms of a football league, the de Birminghams were far from Premiership quality, but somewhere in the second or third divisions perhaps. However, they always had their eyes set on promotion with aspirations of climbing the baronial leagues. Impressively, the de Birminghams managed to maintain their status until the fifteenth century when Edward de Birmingham lost possession of the manor to John Dudley, ending their long line of succession.

The de Birminghams were actually the sub lords to the lords of Dudley, and in modern-day terms this meant that they were ‘sub letting’ land from the Dudleys in return for providing military service. They were in effect their vassals or knights and this meant that if the Dudleys needed military backup, the de Birminghams would honour that request, no questions asked. If they failed to do so, they risked forfeiting their land. Nevertheless, they often acted of their own accord, actively participating in foreign military campaigns and even in civil war, most notably as rebels against the eventual Edward I in the Battle of Evesham in 1265.

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Manuscript depicting the Battle of Evesham in 1265.

They certainly enjoyed a life of luxury too judging by the stoneware jar below, which was found in excavations of the moat between 1973-75. It might look modest, but clay analysis tells us that it’s from the Levant region, around present-day Syria and Lebanon, and was once used for storing mercury, a very expensive medicine in the middle Ages.

For middling ranks of the aristocracy they also held a fair few estates including Shutford in Oxfordshire, as well as further afield with lands in Berkshire and Buckinghamshire. Closer to home was Edgbaston, which most likely explains why one of Birmingham’s first medieval roads sometime before 1296, was named Edgbaston Street. Presumably this was a sure way of connecting trading ventures between two de Birmingham estates.

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The stoneware pot probably dates from the 15th century and was found on the manor-house site. © Birmingham Museums

Of all the estates though, Birmingham remained ‘king’ with its thriving market, as well as being the permanent home of lords of Birmingham. This was where the de Birminghams’ manor house was located after all, strategically situated, so that it was well placed to administer political and social life in the town, as well as serving as a natural meeting point.

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View showing site of the Smithfield Markets and Moat Lane Car park.

The site, which marked the home of the de Birmingham lords since the 12th century was completely redeveloped by 1816, with remnants of the house and moat permanently erased making way for the Smithfield Markets, which opened the following year. Today, all that marks the location of Birmingham’s seigniorial  birthplace is a 1960’s concrete car park that now sits on the periphery of the city centre, forgotten by most, no longer in the heart of civic life.

Moat Square

Depiction of the Moat Square development from Birmingham’s Big City Plan. © Birmingham City Council: http://www.birmingham.gov.uk/bigcityplan

But, fortunately we can end on a high note because as part of Birmingham’s Big City Plan the site of the de Birmingham home and one of Birmingham’s first buildings, will be ‘resurrected’ in an upcoming future development. A new public space is being planned called ‘Moat Square’ in reference to the de Birmingham manor house and moat, and more exciting still, the boundary and general footprint of the moat will serve as a new water feature, returning it part way to its original purpose. It seems that the historic heart of the city, which has lay dormant for over 200 years is due to make an imminent ‘come back’ and breathe life back into Birmingham yet again.

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Medieval ‘Footprints’ in Birmingham

footprints

© Birmingham Museums

The title of this blog doesn’t refer to the sort of footprints you leave behind in the mud or snow, but rather the type that define the area or space occupied by a building, or in this instance the boundaries of a burgage plot. By ‘burgage’, I’m referring to the long and narrow strips of land arranged along street frontages that functioned as the basic units of a town that could be built upon.

So perhaps footprints isn’t the best word to use, because I’m actually referring to plot boundaries rather than the actual buildings. But, footprints is, in another sense, an appropriate word to use as it calls to mind the idea of ‘evidence’ left behind and that’s exactly what the landscape historian and archaeologist has to work with when attempting to reconstruct medieval towns. For a city that’s never been overly keen on preserving its most recent heritage, it might surprise you to learn that Birmingham has some of these medieval ‘footprints’ left.

Burgage plots were characteristically long and narrow, but pressure to subdivide land on account of prosperity and population growth resulted in subdivision of plots making them smaller as you can see in the top right-hand corner of the image.

Burgage plots were characteristically long and narrow, but pressure to subdivide land on account of prosperity and population growth resulted in subdivision of plots making them smaller as you can see in the top right-hand corner of the image. © Birmingham Museums

There are around several of these medieval burgages left in the city centre located in the Digbeth area of town, which appear to conform to their original 13th-century boundary lines. The idea of property boundaries surviving is probably slightly underwhelming for a lot of people, who’d much rather see the actual medieval buildings, but the boundary lines are largely, in fact, an older remnant of medieval towns. Moreover, their story of survival is a fascinating product of the early legal status our ancestors attributed to land. After all, it was owning land, a burgage, that made a townsperson a burgess giving them particular privileges like participating in the collective decision-making of a town. Burgess is in fact, derived from the word burgage which itself comes from the Old French word, burgeis, simply referring to an inhabitant of a town. Buildings, although more appealing, were the dispensable attributes of a property, as they came and they went, but land was preserved precisely because of its power to bestow status on a person, and not to forget its potential to make them money.

The frontages of Birmingham's surviving burgages located in Digbeth just off Park Street.

The frontages of Birmingham’s surviving burgages located in Digbeth just off Park Street. © Sarah Hayes 2013

We need look no further than London after the great fire of 1666 to help explain how and why burgage plots survive. This event brought disastrous consequences on the city burning down a third of London with an estimated ninety-thousand people displaced.

But for some like Sir Christopher Wren and the Royal Society, this was a golden opportunity. They proposed to rebuild London on the basis of an ordered grid system in place of the disordered medieval streets, but this didn’t happen for a few reasons. First, a complete redesign would have taken too long but more specifically here, the property boundaries, although now virtually impossible to pinpoint on account of the absence of the buildings, were still protected by law.

Map of London in 1593. Notice the disorder of the medieval streets.

Map of London in 1593. Notice the disorder of the medieval streets. Source: http://www.medart.pitt.edu/image/England/London/Maps-of-London/London-Maps.html

In fact, it would have involved intervention by the government to implement a complete redesign, and the difficulty of compensating people or transferring their property was a messy and complicated task. The actual reality of rebuilding London after 1666 involved surveyors like Robert Hooke walking the charred streets with residents, armed with available property deeds as well as twine and wooden posts to ‘stake’ out their original plots of land. This example serves to illustrate how legality ensured longevity. That’s to say, that it is precisely the early legal status assigned to boundaries that ensured their survival very often into the 19th century and as recent as the present day in many cases.

Sir Christopher Wren’s proposal for London after the Great Fire of 1666.

Sir Christopher Wren’s proposal for London after the Great Fire of 1666. Source: http://www.architecture.com

‘So what’ I hear some people say, but when you appreciate that we have a stretch of original medieval burgage plots still in Birmingham, standing on the same 13th-century boundary lines, that is a remarkable feat of survival by any standards. What fascinates me the most about this survival though, is that these plots would have been carefully measured out by some of Birmingham’s medieval residents using the town’s very own measuring rod or pole to achieve the intended widths and lengths. These boundary lines, now official, would have been recorded in court rolls and subsequent deeds of transfer. In 13th-century Birmingham one of these plots would have cost you eight pence or four pence for half a plot, incidentally much cheaper than the one shilling fee in other parts of the country.

A reconstruction of what we think the Digbeth plots would have looked like in the 13th century. Located in the heart of the town, this was a prime spot and the pressure to build here must have been great.

 An impression of what we think the Digbeth plots looked like in the 13th century. Located in the heart of the town, this was a prime spot and the pressure to build here must have been great. © Birmingham Museums

Likewise, burgage widths vary a great deal across the country. In Birmingham, they were probably originally around five metres wide and anything up to 60 metres in length, but in Stratford-upon-Avon the average plot was around 15 metres wide! If you’re lucky, these exact widths and lengths are recorded in official documentation like borough charters as in the case of Stratford. But as Birmingham doesn’t have a borough charter, how do we know that these properties are standing on the same original medieval boundary lines?

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We can see what original burgage plots would have looked like when a town was first laid out as illustrated at the top of the image. Once a town started to prosper, plots were subsequently subdivided as depicted in the bottom half of this image. Source: Ideal and Reality in English Episcopal Medieval Town Planning, T.R. Slater

Good question, and the answer is a mixture of hypothesis and fact. Local specialists like George Demidowicz used a technique known as deed regression, which involves tracing boundaries back as far as possible by using property deeds. Such documents record the positions and measurements of a townsperson’s land and luckily for Birmingham, we have a handful of surviving deeds which reveal the transfer of ownership for some of the town’s residents. But this isn’t the case for the entire original medieval town, as we only have this information for sections of the buildings around the Digbeth plots. The deeds tell us that the owners in this part of town ranged from early forms of local government like the Guild of the Holy Cross as well as prominent townspeople such as the Inge and Phillips families.

Specialists also turn to map regression, a technique that uses maps from different periods to compare changes over time and also to identify any continuity. By continuity I’m specifically referring to boundary lines that look ‘ancient’. This involves identifying classic parallel sequences of long strips of land which are often found on19th-century maps denoting the presence of burgages. If these same long strips are visible on even earlier maps like tithe and estate records, there’s a very good chance that we are looking at original burgage plots as laid out when a town was founded. A town’s layout up until the 19th century was often very stable and reflected the original burgage pattern of a town. And although burgages were subject to internal divisions, these later divisions did not normally alter or remove earlier boundaries. This has proven to be the trend across the country. In York, for example, burgage boundaries have survived unchanged from the tenth century, and when plot boundaries were eventually destroyed due to new developments, this change normally occurred in the second half of the 19th century.

A classic burgage pattern depicted on a 19th-century map. This sequence of burgages has since been displaced by modern developments and lies somewhere underneath Selfridges.

A classic burgage pattern depicted on a 19th-century map. This sequence of burgages has since been displaced by modern developments and lies somewhere underneath Selfridges. Also note how the plots have been subdivided, but the earlier original boundary lines nevertheless survived.

In many instances, therefore, we can be sure that when we see long and narrow strips of land on 19th-century maps in places with a medieval past, there’s a very good chance we are looking at some of the original property boundaries of a town. Although the majority of property deeds we have for Birmingham only stretch back to the 1500s, the same rule applies as above: if map regression demonstrates that burgage boundaries do not alter until the 19th century, there’s no reason to suppose that they would have altered by the 16th century. That’s where hypothesis comes in, but this hypothesis is based on detailed research as well as numerous case studies from around the country. Although we can’t actually legitimately trace the Digbeth plots back to the 1150s when Peter de Birmingham founded the town, we can, with the help of both map and deed regression along with the presence of 12th and 13th-century archaeology from the plots, confidently place them at the very latest in 13th-century Birmingham. What is even more satisfying though, is that the forthcoming £150m Beorma Quarter set to transform the area with a 27-storey tower as well as 600,000-square feet of offices, retail and leisure space, will still retain the existing boundaries in the design of the new development. So fortunately, it looks like the medieval relics have a long life ahead of them yet!

A proposal for the forthcoming Beorma development. The new development will be constructed on the same medieval boundaries thereby maintaining around 700 years continuity. Source: www.trevorhorne.com

A proposal for the forthcoming Beorma development. The new development will be constructed on the same medieval boundaries thereby maintaining around 700 years continuity. Work is due to begin in September this year and will start with the construction of a hotel and the refurbishment of Digbeth’s grade-II listed cold storage building. Source: http://www.trevorhorne.com

Birmingham’s burgages are an incredible vestige of our medieval past in a city that’s rarely been sympathetic to its heritage. For me however, they’re simply special because of their ability to take us back to Birmingham’s beginnings as a recognisable commercial and soon to be urban centre. Just as those London residents who walked the streets with Hooke in 1666 staked their claims and protected their boundaries, this stretch of burgages in Birmingham similarly has the power to evoke the presence of people preparing and planning their very own town. In fact, the truly remarkable thing for me about these seemingly trivial features is the knowledge that around 700 years ago a few of Birmingham’s residents were protective of the very same boundaries we can still see today. In this way these medieval ‘footprints’ serve as a gateway with the power to take us back to the point when Birmingham’s inhabitants were laying the foundations of their town and creating the blueprint of what was to become the basis of this great city.

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Exploring Birmingham’s Medieval Streets

Depiction of medieval Birmingham at the end of the 13th century, with St Martin's Church sitting at the centre of the town.

© Birmingham Museums. Depiction of medieval Birmingham at the end of the 13th century, with St Martin’s Church sitting at the centre of the town.

A recent talk I gave for the University of Birmingham’s People, Places and Things series of seminars prompted me to write this latest instalment about medieval Birmingham. In fact, it was a question from a member of the audience after I presented the video of Exploring Medieval Birmingham, 1300 (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JZq9cBzrIVI) that determined the topic of this blog. The person in question asked if I’d thought about superimposing images or footage of Birmingham’s present-day streets over the medieval depictions illustrated in the video. Nice idea, and yes, I did think of doing exactly that, but budgetary and time constraints prevented me from doing so, but that isn’t to say that this can’t be achieved in the near future. Nevertheless, until then this blog will attempt to fill a ‘void’ in going half way to doing just that.

The 1296 Borough Rental referred to in my previous blogs on medieval Birmingham mentions around ten streets in the 13th-century town. Not a bad number, considering that Birmingham had roughly only thirty streets 400 years later. Moreover, some of Birmingham’s best-known streets today were already in existence by 1296. This included the likes of Egebastonstret (Edgbaston Street), le Parkestrete (Park Street), Overparkstret (now Moor Street) Novus Vicus (New Street) and Super Montem (the later High Street).

One of the most recognisable streets in Birmingham with a medieval past.

One of the most recognisable streets in Birmingham with a medieval past.

New Street isn’t as new as we might like to think, but certainly existed by the late 13th century. Perhaps it was only recently new then, but equally it could have been a fixture in the medieval town much before this point. While identifying the streets that framed the town, I started to think about their names especially as they can tell us a lot about an area and its ‘lost’ landscape. It’s easy to forget or simply not realise that the original meaning of street names, much like place names, once ‘said’ a lot about a location.

The many different types of street name can reveal an abundance of information relating to topography or geographical location, natural features, types of industries or even people. It seems that the streets that shaped the medieval town of 1296 were largely ‘signposts’ of locational names or topographical features. One example is Super Montem, translating as ‘Upon the Hill’ and this isn’t hard to appreciate when you realise that this part of town really did and does sit at a higher level than the land leading downhill towards St Martin’s and Digbeth, suitably reflected by its current name, High Street. Then there are the convenient indicators of important trading routes such as Edgbaston Street, named after the Anglo-Saxon manor of Edgbaston, meaning Ecgbeald’s Farm. As Edgbaston was seemingly at one time more successful than Birmingham, as indicated by its higher valuation in Domesday Book, it’s perhaps natural that a road should lead to such a neighbouring settlement. After all, it’s very likely that Birmingham’s inhabitants were trading with Edgbaston’s and vice versa and not to forget that Edgbaston Street led to even more important locations like Northfield. Valued at £5 in Domesday, Northfield was one of the more prosperous manors in the wider area, worth five times as much as that of Birmingham. Moreover it was also once owned by the same overlord as Birmingham: William Fitz-Ansculf whose power was centred on Dudley Castle. So perhaps the street also marked the importance of a wider trading route, as well as leading to Edgbaston itself.

Another important manor also held by William Fitz-Ansculf was Aston, meaning the east estate. Its lands were valued at five times that of Birmingham’s at £5 in Domesday Book.

Another important manor also held by William Fitz-Ansculf was Aston, meaning the east estate. Its land and goods were valued at five times that of Birmingham’s at £5 in Domesday Book.

Novus Vicus or New Street is an indicator of Birmingham’s growth and prosperity as new roads were being built presumably to accommodate more inhabitants and trading ventures. Perhaps also, the adjective ‘new’ reflects the age of some of the other streets in the town as they had presumably been in existence for some time to warrant the latest road being called new.

New Street looking down towards what was once the heart of the medieval town.

New Street looking down towards what was once the heart of the medieval town.

A 'relic' of a pastime now long gone.

The name survives as a ‘relic’ of a pastime now long gone.

Novus Vicus or New Street is an indicator of Birmingham’s growth and prosperity as new roads were being built presumably to accommodate more inhabitants and trading ventures. Perhaps also, the adjective ‘new’ reflects the age of some of the other streets in the town as they had presumably been in existence for some time to warrant the latest road being called new.

Judging by the question that prompted this blog, people naturally want to know what Birmingham’s oldest streets look like today. It comes as no surprise either that most reside in what is the oldest part of town; the original planned settlement Peter de Birmingham carved out in 1166. This is still one of the busiest parts of Birmingham today bustling with shoppers and inhabitants, now paying their ‘tolls’ and ‘rents’ to a different ‘lord of the manor’. On account of the scale and size we had to adopt for the model of medieval Birmingham, the likes of New Street isn’t featured, so I’ve simply focussed on the streets that are depicted to illustrate what these medieval route ways look like today.

Taken from Birmingham: The Building of a City, the map depicts Birmingham in 1553, but the 12th-century town Peter founded can still be seen. Notice the original triangular shape with four of Birmingham’s earliest roads branching from it: High Street, Edgbaston Street, Molle Street, soon to become Moor Street and Park Street, also at one stage known as Little Park Street.

This brings me on to Edgbaston Street, which in the 13th century was home to surely the smelliest industry in town: leather tanning and judging by the archaeological excavations in the area this trade made the greatest mark upon the industrial endeavours of medieval Birmingham. As an essential material in the Middle Ages, leather goods were a staple of everyday life, as were other goods made from horn and bone, which inevitably grew out of the presence of the tanning trade. Today, Edgbaston Street has exchanged tanning for trading of a different sort, but you can still nevertheless find leather goods, minus the noxious smell, that is. This street is now home to Birmingham’s famous Rag Market, amongst many other traders of mixed enterprise.

By 1553 the Tudor town had spread down New Street and towards the Priory lands of what is now Bull Street.

By 1553 the Tudor town had spread down New Street and towards the Priory lands of what is now Bull Street.

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© Birmingham Museums. Edgbaston Street in 1296 looking towards St Martin’s Church.

Edgbaston Street today looking towards St Martin’s Church.

Edgbaston Street today looking towards St Martin’s Church.

The beginning of Park Street in the 13th-century town around where Selfridges is today.

© Birmingham Museums. The beginning of Park Street in the 13th-century town around where Selfridges is today.

Park Street or le Parkestrete was developed to make way for the many burgeoning industries, thereby cutting into the lord’s deer park, on what was then the edge of town. Although Park Street no longer lines the periphery of Birmingham, it does in many ways mark the edge of its shopping quarter lying adjacent to Selfridges and its attached car park. In this sense, Park Street is still on the fringe of Birmingham for many, particularly the enthusiastic shopper who merely walks this medieval road in pursuit of one of Birmingham’s biggest twenty-first century industries.

The extent of Park Street today, which actually begins around Selfridges’ car park stretching to just past this point towards Millennium Point.

The extent of Park Street today, which actually begins around Selfridges’ car park stretching to just past this point towards Millennium Point.

The beginning of what was to become Moor Street near the eventual site of Selfridges.

© Birmingham Museums. The beginning of what was to become Moor Street near the eventual site of Selfridges.

Much like Park Street, Overparkstret was also testament to the growth of Birmingham, with the lord once again sacrificing more of his own land for the good of the town, and of course his own pocket. The name is simple and reflects exactly where this new road would lie: ‘over the lord’s park’, or at least part of it. Maybe Overparkstret and Le Parkstret were cut at the same time, maybe they weren’t, but what is clear is that they came into existence to facilitate the expansion of some of Birmingham’s early industries like tanning and pottery making.

Junction of Park Street and Moor Street where we think Roger le Moul held just some of his numerous burgage plots in 1296.

Junction of Park Street and Moor Street where we think Roger le Moul held just some of his numerous burgage plots in 1296.

Perhaps the word park in two of the town’s roads which also lay very close to one another was slightly confusing for its inhabitants and traders, as Overparkstret was eventually renamed. In 1344 we find the earliest known reference to its new name: le Mulestret or Moulestret, in honour of the richest family in town, after the De Birminghams, at least. As we know, le Moulestret is today’s very own Moor Street, becoming the second of Birmingham’s medieval streets to accommodate a train station. We arguably have Roger le Moul to thank for this name change, and it’s indeed ironic that his surname translates as the small when we know he was a man of great property. Owning most of the land in town after William de Birmingham, he certainly ensured that his name and his family’s legacy would forever be preserved in his hometown.

Start of Super Montem or High Street in 1296. This was no doubt used by drovers to bring their cattle to market in the town.

© Birmingham Museums. Start of Super Montem or High Street in 1296. This was no doubt used by drovers to bring their cattle to market in the town.

Last but not least, we finish with Super Montem, now High Street, which is only just visible at the very edge of the scale model. True to its name it still sits on higher ground, which is why I always suggest that people make the effort to stand at the top of High Street and look downhill towards St Martin’s Church. Although the natural topography has been slightly distorted by the most recent Bull Ring developments, you can still get a ‘flavour’ of what the medieval landscape once looked like in terms of its gradient.

Almost identical to the previous image in terms of position, High Street today is still bustling with shoppers and in the distance St Martin’s steeple peers up towards the higher ground.

Almost identical to the previous image in terms of position, High Street today is still bustling with shoppers and in the distance St Martin’s steeple peers up towards the higher ground.

Street names are really an excellent starting point for beginning to understand the physical development and topography of places, and sometimes the most ordinary of names, just like Park Street, lying in the most unassuming parts of town, can with a bit of detective work, really reveal a ‘hidden’ or forgotten history of a place. These muted relics of the past can tell us much more than you’d ever imagine, acting as signposts to a displaced landscape or in some cases subtly pointing to a terrain still very much intact, but obscured by the urbanisation of the modern city. Nevertheless, if we take the time to look hard enough, we can develop these ‘negatives’ in to fully-fledged images and create a colourful depiction of these ‘lost’ landscapes.

Sarah Hayes, Freelance Curator
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Exploring Medieval Birmingham: Part III

Birmingham in 1300. Any houses that take your fancy?
©Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery

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.

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.

Skull of a hunting dog now on display in the new History Galleries, Birmingham: Its People, Its History.
©Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery

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.

William de Birmingham hunting in his deer park. ©Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery

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. 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 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.

A successful investment! The market triggered Birmingham’s growth and the town continued to expand gradually into the rest of the manor. ©Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery

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. ©Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery

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.

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. ©Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery

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.

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.

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.

 

 

 

Special thanks to our model makers, Eastwood Cook http://www.eastwoodcook.com/

Sarah Hayes, Freelance Curator

 


Exploring Medieval Birmingham: Part II

The 1296 Borough Rental referred to in my previous blog is the earliest known ‘census’ carried out in Birmingham. Official censuses didn’t begin in this country until 1801, but recording information about people, land and property has preoccupied governments since time immemorial. We know, for instance, that William the Conqueror commissioned the great land survey, Domesday Book, in 1086 to assess how much his newly occupied country was worth. The Borough Rental was no different in that its main purpose was to keep a record of the rents owed to the lord of the manor. However, like Domesday, it doesn’t give an accurate indication of Birmingham’s population, as it mainly lists principle tenants, those people renting land directly from the lord. William de Birmingham, Lord of the Manor, was in essence a landlord and generated much of his income from renting his land to Birmingham townspeople.

How William de Birmingham made his money! Just some of the burgage plots he rented out to the townspeople.

Our model isn’t just about buildings and institutions in medieval Birmingham, it’s first and foremost about the real people who lived in the town. The Borough Rental doesn’t just record the names of townspeople though. In some cases, it lists their trades and locations. This, together with archaeological evidence from the Bull Ring excavations, has given us a unique opportunity to quite literally trace their footsteps, or at least the general area of Birmingham they called home. We want to allow visitors to learn more about the real townspeople and to ‘interact’ with them through our model.

They can do this through a series of push buttons, which link to eight characters positioned around this interactive. The button will trigger a light and illuminate a character in the model, and visitors can learn more about where that person lived or worked. The characters we’ve chosen represent the wide spectrum of wealth and trades in Birmingham, ranging from the lord of the manor, to everyday folk like tanners and potters.

A tanner scraping skins to remove the unwanted hair.

Kilns were located in people’s back yards away from the main buildings because of the risk of fire.

Archaeology and history go hand-in-hand in this display as the two disciplines combined provide us with an invaluable insight into how people lived. For instance, there will be a selection of cattle horns on display which represent the established tanning industry in medieval Birmingham. The horns also serve to highlight the presence of Welsh cattle drovers who came here to sell their cows at market. With its abundant natural springs and streams scattered around the market place, Birmingham was the perfect place to water livestock. One of our characters, Richard le Couherde, which translates as the cow herder, would have played his part in helping the drovers to guide the cattle to market in the busy town. We know that Birmingham was already at the centre of a well-established road network by this stage, and there’s evidence to suggest that the roads the drovers used were already very old by 1300. Welsh names like Jones, Prys and Brangwayn even crop up in the Rental. While we don’t know if these men were drovers, we can safely assume that they, or their ancestors used these roads to make their journeys to Birmingham.

A cattle horn core found during the Bull Ring excavations in the late 1990s. Horn cores were the only waste product from the cattle, as everything else including the meat, skin and horn were sold.

Richard le Couherde driving the cattle to market or the ‘Bull Ring’ as it became known.

Birmingham was built on migration and this is a strong theme running throughout the new History Galleries. This trend was well under way in the Middle Ages, and was not simply a nineteenth and twentieth-century phenomenon as is often assumed. Other surnames in the Rental stress this point and include the likes of de Coventre (‘from Coventry’), Newporde (‘from Shropshire or Wales’), de Parys (very possibly ‘from Paris’) and those places closer to home, including de Edebaston (‘from Edgbaston’) and de Norton (‘from King’s Norton’).

Birmingham’s thriving market attracted migrants from nearby settlements. Its nearest competition came in 1300 when Sutton Coldfield was granted a market charter. By this point, Birmingham’s market was nearly 150 years old and too well-established for Sutton to pose a threat.

As well as locational surnames, the Rental lists many occupational names which were very common in the Middle Ages. Nicholas le Sawyer would have been responsible for many of the new builds in the town. Le Sawyer means the person who saws wood, and in a place constantly attracting new migrants, homes would have been in demand.


A sawyer hard at work.

Another new build, but this time workers are ‘raising the cruck’, which refers to the ‘A’ frame wooden beams they are hauling into place. The other common type of building was the ‘box frame’ to the left of the cruck.

One thing that tied all these people together were the rents they paid to William de Birmingham. But, even William wasn’t top of the tree. Above him were the Lords of Dudley from whom he held the manor of Birmingham, and above all of them was the king.

William de Birmingham in his deer park with his huntsman and greyhounds.

Having access to such a valuable document like the Borough Rental will help people to make more sense of the objects on display in the new History Galleries. While we don’t know the biography of people’s lives in the medieval town, we can make links through their professions, where they lived and even the names we share with them. We can identify with their daily struggle to pay the rent and put food on the table, and while we can never fully ‘know’ them, we can learn more than we ever could have hoped for, simply because of the discovery of this document just a few years ago. It just makes you wonder what else is out there, above ground and below!

Once again, special thanks to our model makers, Eastwood Cook http://www.eastwoodcook.com/

Sarah Hayes, Freelance Curator

Follow me on Twitter @CinnamonLatte17 to keep up to date with the latest developments on the Birmingham History Galleries.

This blog first featured on Posterous in July 2012,  http://birminghammag.posterous.com/exploring-medieval-birmingham-part-ii