This is the fifth post in a week long series about an exhibition at Exeter’s museum.
- Day one: a map of Exeter
- Day two: domestic decoration
- Day three: goldsmiths and urban redevelopment
- Day four: the Spanish Armadas
In this final post I offer some brief parting thoughts on the success of the exhibition as an exploration of a complicated and dynamic society.
A skilled society
It was clear that this was a highly creative society, with many accomplished practitioners of the arts and crafts. Perhaps this is overemphasised by the very nature of museum exhibitions that are likely to contain a preponderance of manufactured objects and paintings, but that does not detract from the quality of the items on display. There are more prestigious objects such as the Drake Cup (c. 1595). By tradition it was given to Drake by Elizabeth I after he circumnavigated the globe, its silver gilt engraved with a map of the world, complete with names of continents, islands and seas in Latin, plus sailing ships, whales and dolphins. Its hard to imagine anyone actually drinking out of this (it’s enormous and unwieldy for a start), but the same is certainly not true of more everyday objects such as the glazed stoneware drinking vessels and delicate silver spoons also in the collection – whilst important indicators of status and often treasured family possessions, these items were made to be used, not rest on a shelf.
An intellectual society
As ever, I am left to marvel at the intellectual sophistication of people in the distant past, in an era that most people now would think of as the technological dark ages. In terms of intellectual activity the pre-modern period was not backwards or uncivilised, this was a society that exhibited civic pride (for more see day 1: a map of Exeter), where renaissance style and learning was spreading, and where important topographers (such as mapmaker John Norden) and antiquarians (such as Richard Carew) were beginning to make their mark. Another nugget that I learned at the exhibition – Sir Thomas Bodley, the founder of Oxford’s Bodleian library, was born in Exeter.
A Protestant society
As a religious historian I am particularly sensitive to the Protestantism that underpins late Tudor society, but I think few historians would disagree that the Reformation’s repercussions were also to be felt in every sphere of daily life. From the goldsmiths who prospered when reshaping church plate for a new liturgy (for more see day 3: a Devon communion cup), to the soldiers engaged in an epic struggle against the antichrist and international Catholicism (for more see day 4: the Spanish Armadas), to those for whom scripture became deeply embedded in their ways of expressing themselves and in guiding their everyday activities (for more see day 2: domestic decoration), Protestantism was key. We can’t even begin to understand this society without considering it.
An ambitious society
On his talking tour, exhibition curator and Exeter Professor Sam Smiles described Francis Drake as the Neil Armstrong of his age, and the analogy struck a chord with me that kept reverberating. Partly because it immediately suggested the celebrity of the man – how many contemporaries knew Drake’s name? Current scholarship has a tendency to be sceptical about the importance of exploration for sixteenth century societies, with claims that few people were aware of new discoveries which made little impact on ordinary people’s lives. But the Armstrong analogy is intriguing because of what it suggests about the mentality of the Elizabethans. Clearly some were ambitious, self-confident, cocky even, heading into the unknown on the uncertain hope of economic rewards and a boost for their honour and all important reputation. This was a society where political success and innovation or entrepreneurship were occasionally linked. And it is undoubtedly true that whilst precedent, custom and tradition were revered this was not to the exclusion of novelty.
Two maps in the exhibition really capture this duality. The first is the map of Exeter that I discussed in my first post.
The second is a map of the North America village of Pomeiooc, on Roanoke Island (1585-93).
Placed next to each other, the similarities between early modern Exeter and Pomeiooc are striking. Pomeiooc is presented as a well ordered settlement, encased in a wooden palisade for defence, it’s inhabitants are hunters, fishers and farmers. Sophisticated visual techniques are again on display – some of the houses are ‘cut away’ to reveal their inner organisation, and there is even a chap practising his archery by the fishing pools in the top right corner, just like in the map of Exeter. As before, this might tell us just as much about the European who painted the map as it does the native Americans that it depicts. It might reveal the tendency of Europeans to impose their own understandings and framework on the new cultures and societies that they encountered in far away places. It might be propaganda, designed to support overseas settlement by enticing potential settlers to the New World – like Exeter, Pomeiooc looks like a productive and fertile community (though I do wonder, what is that wooden fence keeping out…?). It certainly suggests that not all Europeans dismissed these people as barbaric savages, and that they could identify similarities between their own society and non-European counterparts.
An impressive society, an excellent exhibition
All in all, I was deeply impressed by both the achievements and complexity of the Tudor south west, as well as the exhibition’s capacity to capture and explore it. The Golden Age is here in all it’s glory – crafts, art, architecture, entrepreneurs, discovery, military triumph, intellectual development.
My only remaining niggle is that the difficulties, the struggles and the violence of the age are largely absent. Here we see the middling and upper sections of Elizabethan society, but these objects are largely silent about the lower sorts, the people suffering in the hardships of the 1590s, the people resisting religious change and suffering due to economic trends. We do come face to face with Lord John Russell, 1st earl of Bedford, in a sketch by Holbein the younger. Russell was in charge of the forces that brutally suppressed the West Country or Prayer Book Rebellion in 1549, slaughtering hundreds in a number of bloody encounters around Exeter. But here his image must serve as the only reference to the scars left on the south west by that tragic rebellion. Of course, it would be strange to linger on these more troubling aspects of the period in an exhibition that is intended as a pointer to the south west’s ‘manifold contribution to the Tudor age’, and these comments are not intended as a (horribly unfair) criticism of the exhibition. They are included here as representative of my worry that perhaps there is too little space for the lower sorts in our museums and a reminder that we should fight hard to make sure they can find a place.
In summary, this is undoubtedly an excellent exhibition that certainly fulfils its remit of revealing the intellectual, artistic and economic importance of south west in the Tudor Age. The sophistication of this society is perhaps the most striking impression that one is left with: despite being a geographically-peripheral region, this was by no means a provincial backwater. Head to the RAMM to see for yourself.
‘West Country to World’s End: the South West in the Tudor Age’ runs until 2 March 2014 at Exeter’s Royal Albert Memorial Museum. You can find all the details about the museum, it’s opening times, it’s wonderful café and more here.
I agree about your final point, Laura: the absence of ‘the lower orders’ and the often harsh conditions they endured is something very worthy of remark.
I think most historians are now quite used to grappling with this problem in terms of written records. As the posts in our ‘History from Below’ event showed, there has been a huge amount of work on non-elites using particular types of documents (e.g. parish records) or reading traditional elite-created documents ‘against the grain’. But we still have a long way to before we have a good sense of the material culture of these non-elites. We might, for example, be able to learn a lot about goldsmiths, who were working craftsmen, but we know much less about the objects created and used by, say, their wives or their poorer neighbours and even less about those of Exeter’s paupers and vagrants.
It’s certainly not the fault of the curators. Just as with the written record, if not more so, the material left behind by the poor is scanty. Yet if we simply construct a picture of the past proportionate to the surviving objects, we risk creating an image that is heavily skewed towards the rich and powerful, with their bountiful material possessions, at the expense of the ‘objectless’ majority.
Pingback: A mini-series on ‘The Tudor South West’ at Exeter’s Royal Albert Memorial Museum | the many-headed monster