At the start of the spring term our special subject class: A History of the Tudors in 100 Objects traveled to London to conduct our class at the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Museum of London. The purpose of this Material Culture course is, through extensive collaboration, to devise a collection of 100 objects and artifacts that create a history of what life was like in Tudor England.
Each week we are provided with a theme and corresponding lecture by Tara Hamling, Birmingham’s own noted material culture expert, before we are sent to work to find, research, present, and vote on objects that fit those themes. Whether we are linking King Arthur’s Round Table to propaganda in the Tudor dynasty or heatedly discussing how the codpiece relates to masculinity, every week has brought new insight into the lives of England’s favourite monarchs.
Our class was extremely fortunate to have the opportunity to travel to London to see some of these objects we had discussed and to explore the museums in search of new objects to add to our collection. We began the trip at the Victoria and Albert Museum to look at objects and art that were considered “high culture” or otherwise objects of great value or prestige that would have been own or commission by the elite.
The V&A is a must-see for anyone in London, as it is expansive in size and content and free to the public. However, to explore the Tudor and Stuart England sections, trying to spot objects we had seen in class while Professor Hamling provided her own expertise, was an experience each and every one of us felt lucky to be a part of.
The highlight for all was seeing the Great Bed of Ware, a massive four-poster bed that is said to sleep twelve comfortably. In Tudor times the bed was on display in the main room of a pub and was used as a tourist attraction. For us, however, it was a piece in our collection and a topic in our readings that had come alive as a tangible form of living history.
After two hours, we left the world of luxurious items and fantastic examples of Renaissance artwork and craftsmanship to see a collection of very different kinds of objects at the Museum of London. Here we focused on “low culture” or the simple, everyday objects that would be much more common for a layperson in Early Modern England. The museum has thousands upon thousands of artifacts, most of them broken, rusted, frayed, decayed, or otherwise damaged, that had been found in archaeological digs throughout London.
The collection at this museum was filled with pins found in the ruins of the Rose Theatre, artifacts used in medicine, charred and ruined objects from the Fire of London, pieces of spoons, pots, and other household items, and plenty more. Where the V&A had objects that represent monarchy, dynasty, renaissance, reformation, wealth, art, and learning, the Museum of London showcased a different part of Tudor history, like domesticity, social unrest, fire, plague, and war.
The contrast between the two museums underlined a major theme in our course: in order to fully create a history of the Tudors, we need to look at all aspects of Early Modern life. Historians have too often neglected the every day object in favor of the extraordinary, but that paints an incomplete picture, we need one in order to understand the other. Although generally speaking, historians have also too often neglected objects as a way to understand their subjects. If we have learned anything from this course, and more specifically this trip, it is that the study of objects and material culture as part of history opens doors that documents and accounts simply do not. When we consider the significance an object had on the life of a person from Tudor England we step into their world and for one moment, history comes to life.
By Danielle Alesi