We all collect names and dates for our family trees. Those who are serious family historians (what I, in my old fashioned way, would call ‘proper’ family historians), will look for detailed biographical information and examine the local and social historical context for our ancestors’ lives. How ever assiduous we are about this, it is still difficult to really understand what life would have been like a hundred, two hundred, four hundred years ago. I have the good fortune to be able to get closer than most to the daily lives of my ancestors as an historical interpreter. For the uninitiated, this basically means dressing up in funny (to you that is) clothes and learning about life in past times. My own venture Swords and Spindles concentrates on the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries but I am known to time travel into other eras. I even spent a week building houses using Neolithic tools and techniques - techniques which actually lasted into the recent past. That was a real eye opener. What is the most efficient way of riddling chalk? What material and method made the most water-tight or long-lasting thatch? Your ancestors will have struggled with these issues. Have you ever thought how difficult it is to build a home, from wattle and daub, cob, lathe and plaster, or whatever material would have been prevalent where your ancestors lived? Do you even know what vernacular housing would have been built from in your ancestral areas, because it will vary according to what building materials were available locally?
Have you considered something as simple as collecting water? Walk to the well/pump, which may be many yards/metres away. Use a fair amount of physical energy pumping or winding up well buckets. Carry the water home in a bucket that would almost certainly have been wooden and therefore heavy. A full wooden bucket might weigh as much as four stone (25kg). It is estimated that two gallons (two large buckets full) of water would be needed by each person per day. Have you tried carrying a full bucket of water that weighs this much? You have to either use a yoke or carry it away from your body in a manner that makes it much more difficult that carrying say a suitcase of similar weight. How difficult is this? Very. How do I know? Because I have tried it. It isn’t the same because I do not have the muscle power or the stamina that my female ancestors would have had to have had and I can go back to my own comfortable, modern life afterwards but it really highlights some of the difficulties of our ancestors’ lives.
How about making clothes? First shear your sheep. Ever tried lifting a wet sheep’s fleece because you will need to wash it. How difficult and time consuming is it to spin, weave and sew in poor light? Then you have to perform your daily tasks wearing what you have made. Have you ever thought about something as simple as climbing stairs in the costume of the past? It is tricky, remember that women were frequently pregnant, carrying small children or other items.
And then there is food. How much energy does it take to make butter or bread (by hand of course) or to grind flour? It takes about an hour to do your ‘daily grind’ i.e. to produce enough flour for one loaf. I have to confess that although I have tried grinding flour, making bread, and butter and have cooked using historic recipes and equipment, I haven’t yet sampled the really gory bits, such as wringing the necks of chickens or killing pigs but I am aware that I probably should.
If you get an opportunity to participate in living history - we don’t use the r word (re-enacting) or experimental archaeology, grab it with both hands, there is no better way to bring your ancestors to life. If you care about your ancestors you owe it to them to try to better understand their lives.