Currently airing on BBC Two is Tudor Monastery Farm, a rather gentle, post-reality-era bit of television, continuing the popular franchise of Victorian, Edwardian and Wartime Farm. Although a little guilty of choosing the National Curriculum-friendly “Tudor” label over “Medieval” (admittedly however, Late Middle Ages Farm or Circa Fifteen-Hundred Farm lack a certain marketability), it remains a rather interesting little programme for a Medievalist Art Historian to have a look at on the iPlayer.
Unlike the modern-era Farms, authentic-looking locations are tougher to find. Mostly it is filmed at the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum in Sussex, a collection of relocated historic vernacular buildings that has a hyperreal theme-park fantasy feel of a Tudor Westworld. The Monastery itself is Downside Abbey in Somerset, a post-Reformation foundation of a Catholic Benedictine community with a spectacular (although unfinished) Gothic Revival church of 1882-1925. Perhaps as a concession to its post-Harry Potter magic, there is much filming of mysterious monkish goings-on in the cloisters of a former medieval abbey, Gloucester Cathedral.
Finally, there is the reconstructed church of St. Teilo at St Fagans National History Museum near Cardiff, which after being moved had a full cycle of wall paintings reinstated, which while helpful in conveying both the gaudiness and crowded imagery of a late medieval church, it is ultimately a rather strangely sanitised facsimile.
Joining the established presenter Ruth Goodman and stalwart from Victorian Farm Peter Ginn is the excellently-named Tom Pinfold, and together they demonstrate farming, cooking and craft processes, as well as taking part in the ritual of the late medieval Catholic church. In some ways, the programme is more interesting for an art historian to watch than the many medieval art programmes aired on BBC Four in the past decade (increasingly predictably hosted by Dr Janina Ramirez). For instance, making a wattle fence immediately reminds one of its depiction in medieval art, such as in the Seilern Triptych by Robert Campin in the Courtauld gallery, and the process of bell-founding of the stained glass window donated by that profession’s guild to the Cathedral of York Minster in the fourteenth century. The re-enactment of Christian rituals such as holy loaf and lay-led Palm Sunday processions, partway between Church and folk tradition, are also a lot of fun to see. All is done in good Blue Peter-fun with pristine make-up throughout: no diary-room style “I can’t stand another day on the Monastery Farm!” angst here, thankfully.
It is somewhat surprising to see such a jolly evocation of a pre-Reformation Merrie England on the BBC at the moment. Recently, with Diarmaid MacCulloch’s documentary on Thomas Cromwell and Melyvn Bragg on William Tyndale, the BBC seems to have been rather consistently painting the sixteenth century as the point when the intellectual glory of the English Renaissance swept away broken old Catholic England and its greedy monasteries. After seeing Diarmaid stand in the ruins of Hailes Abbey trying to convince us that its destruction was “a good thing” it is welcoming to see Tudor Monastery Farm as showing life under a monastery in late Medieval England as a happily functioning society rather than rotten and awaiting Dissolution. But then, we still have three episodes to go…