Further Unravelling the Tinsley Court Rolls: Local Collaboration, Scholarly Gaps and Bridging the Public/Academic DivideLeave a comment
September 20, 2016 by Amy Ryall
Post-doc researcher Elizabeth Goodwin spent some time this summer continuing a public engagement project on the Tinsley Court Rolls, in collaboration with Heeley City Farm and the people of Tinsley. She reflects here on her experiences and what next for the project.
Last year, Laura 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 history, and history in general, our project would have been fairly pointless.
We were firstly delighted but then even more greatly motivated to disseminate our findings because of the enthusiasm and insights we encountered. Members of the Tinsley public embraced our project on open days, school fairs and public talks, asking questions, looking at the palaeography and handling the closest thing we could offer them to the real documents – our 3D print-out of a seven-hundred-year-old document’s wax seal, made by the University of Sheffield’s talented engineering department, was extremely popular.
The project, completed in October 2015, was an Arts Enterprise-funded work from the Heritage Lottery ‘Exploring Tinsley Manor’ exploration; PhD students and academics from the University of Sheffield’s History Department examined the oldest documents in Sheffield City Archives relating to the north-eastern suburb’s history. In June this year, we were lucky enough to return to these documents to create a proposal for a potential PhD project; working in partnership with the Archives, the successful candidate would, we hope, uncover even more about the fascinating thirteenth-eighteenth century documents. (To read about our own initial research, see our History Matters blog post.)
The project has great potential to shed much-needed light on the life in medieval and early modern Tinsley, from feuds over land to misbehaviour in the farmyard. But importantly, it has another angle to the study that is vital to explore: the collaboration with the people of contemporary Tinsley, who have already offered so much to these initial research stages. Through informal discussion with members of the public, we have been able to draw parallels between what they’re interested in as residents of Tinsley and the scholarly ‘gap’ that this project hopes to fill. In this post, we want to examine a few of the ways in which these ideas coincided.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that Sheffield’s history started after the nineteenth-century. Steel, mining, unemployment and post-industrialisation characterised, and predominantly still characterises, the broad narrative of South Yorkshire history. For Tinsley, an area that once was the centre of some of the biggest industry mills in the city, this industrial history is felt more strongly than most.
But the documents that relate to Tinsley spread from the High Middle Ages to the dawn of the Victorian age, straddling the medieval, the early modern and the modern ages – in fact, this remarkable range has hampered our understanding of the documents as a complete set, as historians tend to compartmentalise with our own specialisms.
We hope that this potential project could form something of a bridge between periods and understandings.
Boundary and mixed identity
Sitting on the borders of Rotherham and Sheffield, and divided by the national North/South-connecting M1, Tinsley is quite literally on the borders and at the boundaries. Adding to the fact that it is an area known for its welcome of migrants, with the majority speaking English as a second language, it is a place of varied coexisting identities.
That resonates in the documents too. They often reference prominent people and places that range from far and wide – from locally surrounding areas (Peter de Rotherham, John de Catcliffe) to the national (people who hold land in London and Wiltshire, as well as in Nottingham). This rural place appears to be the centre of administration, and yet scholarship has rarely focused on what made it so important.
A large part of the potential project could be trying to understand why this rural boundary area plays such an important and integrated part in medieval and early modern lives, as well as trying to ascertain the levels of migration and movement of people and families to and within the area.
Focus on gender
Tinsley is one of the most active areas in Sheffield for community events and activities. Women of Tinsley play an active role in both the establishment and running of these groups, often for other women – the African Women’s Health Group, the female-only fitness classes and the Women’s Local History Course (due to start again with connections to this medieval project) enable women and girls in Tinsley to participate and lead their communities.
Historically, women were doing interesting and important jobs in Tinsley life too. Margaret Williamson and Mary Shepley, for example, were recorded as pinders, tasked with impounding stray animals. This shows not only the importance of women in local, administrative and farming roles, but more generally, displays prominent women in historical sources that are frequently dismissed as focusing almost exclusively on men. An obvious lead for a student of the Tinsley medieval documents would be to further examine these cases, putting them in a broader context to understand just how unique this situation was.
These areas of cross-over interest are essential, not only to the potential PhD project, but in a much broader sense: good public engagement projects are those that really want to engage with people outside of academia in a meaningful way, rather than extoll their research virtues with little thought or care for reception and feedback; they are those that present their findings in an interesting way and, crucially, are interested to hear what others think of them; they are those that don’t patronise, assume or talk down to their audience.
For the people of Tinsley, these historical documents are their shared, heritage, linking their community in a very real, tangible way. If our bid for a collaborative PhD project is successful, we hope that the student undertaking the project will be as enthusiastic as those with whom they’ll be in contact.