Reflecting on the Rolls: a public engagement project

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September 11, 2015 by Amy Ryall

Unravelling Tinsley’s Court Rolls is an Arts Enterprise funded project, a partnership between the University of Sheffield’s Department of History and Heeley City Farm. PhD students Laura Alston and Elizabeth Goodwin played a key part in leading the project under the guidance of Sally Rodgers, Community Partnerships Manager at Heeley and Historian Charles West. Here, Laura and Elizabeth reflect on their involvement in the project and provide some insight into what working on it was like.

Early last year, we were invited to help lead an Arts Enterprise project that had developed from the Heritage Lottery funded project, Exploring Tinsley Manor
That project was Unravelling Tinsley’s Court Rolls. As we’ve written before on the History Matters blog the emphasis in school curricula and local museums has predominantly focused on the region’s modern roots, so for us, as Sheffield-born PhD students of late medieval and early modern periods, it was an exciting challenge to investigate and present research into the medieval world.

When we started the project in August 2014, our aims were clear: primarily, we had to interpret the Tinsley Court Rolls, three bundles of documents beginning in 1284 and finishing at the turn of the nineteenth century and held in Sheffield Archives. Working with Tinsley Meadows Primary School, we expected to make the court rolls information into school packs and lesson plans to be delivered as part of their history and archaeology lessons. Most importantly, we wanted to use our research and develop it into interesting and accessible talks and articles to be heard and read by a wide general public.

A year later, and the project is coming to a close. To date, it is the longest running public engagement project of which either of us has been a part. It has reached, through talks, events and lessons, nearly 300 members of the public, from ten year old primary school pupils to members of local history groups to audiences across the city. The project has resulted in more outcomes than we ever expected. It has grown, developed and changed significantly since we started. In this article, we want to reflect on what we’ve learnt during our public engagement project. It’s not always been easy, but it’s never been dull.

Tinsley in the County of York, 14 April, 1608 - one of the later documents researched

Tinsley in the County of York, 14 April, 1608 – one of the later documents researched

1. Set realistic goals in the archives and, crucially, don’t panic when things don’t go immediately to plan.
When we initially drew up the timetable for the project, we imagined that by Christmas, our archival research would be wrapped up, that by April, our material would be written up and understood, and that by the end of July, we would have disseminated and finalised all our findings in neat, articulate documents.
By the end of December, we were just about getting to grips with the fundamentally difficult primary documents that had previously only had very little scholarly attention. It wasn’t until April that we left the archives for more or less the last time, satisfied that we had covered enough ground in enough detail. Our lessons in schools started in February, and talks and events (like our stall at the Local Archaeology Day at the Showroom cinema in November, our open archive session for the Young Archaeologists Society in February and various public talks) were planned and delivered alongside continuing archival research. There wasn’t to be a definitive ‘stop’ in the archives before moving on to the next stage of our project, and when we look back, we shouldn’t have expected there to be (see number 4).

In the run up to and just after Christmas, our anxiety that we weren’t on track was growing quickly – but we shouldn’t have worried. We were simply building this fascinating project as we went along, displaying not only our immediate findings, but the process of research with the public. We learnt to set achievable goals for our work, goals that were flexible within our research, and have produced more interesting and in-depth work as a result.

2. Not all volunteers will stay the course – but you‘ll treasure the ones that do.
A major aim of the Tinsley Court Rolls project was to engage volunteers in the archives and in our research as we were conducting it. It is not, of course, for everyone; several people showed sincere interest but, after one or two sessions, decided that this type of research wasn’t for them. It was always a hard ask – giving up your Saturday mornings to attempt to make sense of documents where handwriting was sometimes illegible, the language was indecipherable (often Latin) and there was absolutely no way of judging context or meanings. It’s not personal, and you shouldn’t be relying on them to do the work.

Volunteers that do stay the course, however, are worth their weight in gold. Helping out with events at school or researching in the archives, people that made a consistent and sustained effort every week, that engaged fully with the project and were instrumental in following up research leads were an essential part in driving the research and project dissemination. The work of one volunteer, Nikki, has led to another project on watermarks and paper-making in Yorkshire.

3. Sometimes you need to change tack
It became apparent early on that transcribing and translating every detail and every word of every document was going to be impossible for both the amount of time and resources we had. Sources threw up language barriers and palaeography difficulties that we struggled to overcome. We tried to find things that simply weren’t there, or we did find things that we just couldn’t understand. The difference in a public engagement project to your own research, however, is that whereas your project might meander along with changing research questions and discoveries, the boundaries of externally-funded public engagement work are, and of course should be, more defined – you’re being paid to do what you said you’d do.

We translated, transcribed and interpreted the vast majority of the documents, describing the rest, more than meeting our brief. The piece of work containing our archival material, held at Sheffield Archives and we hope, soon to be online, is a searchable document where names can be crossed-referenced, handwriting described, marginalia articulated and descriptions and transcriptions accessed. Read in tandem with our secondary document, where we’ve interpreted our findings within existing historiography, our work will be incredibly useful for future use. It’s just that it doesn’t look exactly as we expected.

4. You’ll get frustratingly unanswered questions, but also unexpected leads
In the course of our research, we came across a document linked to the Tinsley Court Rolls, detailing a fascinating medieval event at Tickhill castle. It involves lords, ladies, knights and homage, feasting, celebration and ritual. Yet no matter how many times we tried, we couldn’t solve a key mystery at the heart of it – in the story told in this fourteenth-century document, a bird is given from the king to the lord of Tickhill. Is the bird a goose – for feasting near Michaelmas? Is it a falcon, as others have suggested – a ritualised giving of honour and favouritism? We’re still trying to work this out.

From these documents though, a project emerged to create a 3D print out of the incredibly preserved late medieval seal belonging to the material. Funded by the Sheffield Summer Undergraduate Research scheme, this interdisciplinary project, working with academics and undergraduate students in Engineering, will bring to life this medieval material culture for a new audience, to be touched and engaged with outside the archives.

There are so many directions public engagement projects can take. Don’t think problems in one route will be the end.

Medieval Seal

The medieval seal, attached to one of the documents and the subject of the 3D printing project

5. It’ll take you out of your comfort zone.
We’re not teachers, but, with Sally’s expert help, we found ourselves running the lessons we’d planned within Tinsley Meadows Junior School. We’re not photographers, but when the photographer went AWOL just as we needed the documents shooting to be collated in our secondary article, we turned photographer. Booking rooms, organising catering and publicising events are all things that we’ve gained experience of doing, never mind giving the talks themselves. The research itself was a departure from our PhD work on eighteenth century emotion and fifteenth and sixteenth century nuns but all the more interesting because of it.

Year 5 cartoon storyboard of how a medieval court works, based on our research.

Year 5 cartoon storyboard of how a medieval court works, based on our research.

6. People are interested
From visitors to the archives asking what we’re up to, to history groups inviting us to talk, to young people giving up their free time to investigate the documents with our help, we’ve been touched and thrilled with how the people of South Yorkshire have shown interest in the project.
Perhaps this is because, just like us, they were fascinated to learn something about the new about their region. Perhaps it’s because we’ve managed to bring to life the real people and real stories of medieval and early modern Tinsley, through existing place names, family names and an understanding of everyday work. Perhaps it was the opening of the archives, the ability to touch these remote documents and to demystify the processes of keeping them stored that kept people involved. Perhaps it was the interest in bringing together community through shared history in an ethnically diverse and multi-cultural part of Sheffield.

Whatever the reasons, we’re proud to think in a small way the work we’ve done has piqued public interest or expanded knowledge. The fact remains, however, that without this external interest to begin with, our work would be fairly pointless. And that’s what we’ve learnt on our public engagement project.

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One thought on “Reflecting on the Rolls: a public engagement project

  1. […] and I wrote a blog post about what we’d learnt through our work on a public engagement project, Unravelling the Tinsley Rolls. We concluded the post by saying that without the public being interested in their shared local […]

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