Television history can get a bad press. To be sure, some of it can simplify the work of the historian and – even worse – therefore distort our view of the past. Some TV history is sensationalist; some is just poorly done. But that’s true of some written history, too. The medium is not the message.
That’s why I found the first episode of BBC Two’s Tudor Monastery Farm, broadcast last night, so heartening. At its best, TV history can communicate if not the latest research then at least relatively recent trends – it is as capable as other forms of history of moving away from the great men or constitutional styles of history, and reveal to a mainstream audience something of where current specialised understanding of the past sits.
So, whilst also being accessible and entertaining, Tudor Monastery Farm doesn’t peddle the ‘merrie old England’ myth; it doesn’t depict its peasant farmers as foolish or ignorant; and it doesn’t pretend that all people through history are essentially the same as us, just in different clothes. Instead, this first episode focused very successfully on the mentalities of the past – the different ways of thinking which define how and why people once acted.
Perhaps since Keith Thomas’s famed Religion and the Decline of Magic in the 1970s (which I mention in a lecture this very day, no less!), historians of the Tudor period have come and more to understand with ever-increasing sympathy and considerable subtlety how religion functioned during the late medieval and early modern period: how it knitted together, explained and enhanced people’s lives and experiences. Tudor Monastery Farm was excellent at depicting, in addition to the expected details of seed-sowing and animal husbandry, the early modern mentality with economy and wit: the way in which the table was laid, entertainments performed, or rituals enacted, were all informed by religion – and all had a crucial effect on both individuals and, most importantly given the communal emphasis of the time, society as a whole.
Like the many historians whom I routinely recommend to my students (including Alec Ryrie, Alexandra Walsham, Peter Marshall and many more), I spend my time researching the ways in which the people of the English Reformation (Tudor Monastery Farm, of course, takes place some decades before this period, around 1500) understood their faith and, through it, the world. I’m also interested in the role of food in the period, and the work of (for example) Erica Fudge, Ken Albala and Michael LaCombe also deserves a wider audience. And here’s a TV show which, despite its small-screen character, helps communicate a little of that work to the general audience so often overlooked within the academy.
The first episode is now available on the BBC iPlayer. Watch it, and then tune in next week!