Uncovering medieval England’s ‘Northern Way’

Using original archives in the teaching of medieval history poses a number of problems. Medieval texts are written in languages unfamiliar to the majority of us today, including Latin, Middle English and Anglo-Norman French (and sometimes a combination of more than one of them in the same document!). Scribes also had very different styles of writing to those we are used to in the 21st century. If you don’t know the languages or how to transcribe the texts, medieval documents are often completely inaccessible. This can be a particular problem in schools, where pupils at Key Stage 3 in England, for example, are taught ‘the development of Church, state and society in Medieval Britain 1066-1509’.

The Register of Archbishop William Melton, Archbishop of York 1317-1340, now divided into two volumes.

So how can we get round these issues, and make some of these archives available and accessible to a wider audience? These are questions we’ve been trying to answer at the University of York. In 2014-15 we undertook a funded project to digitise the surviving registers of the Archbishops of York between 1225 and 1650, held by the University’s Borthwick Institute for Archives. All the high-resolution images are freely available on our online database, York’s Archbishops Registers Revealed. Three further funded projects have enabled the indexing of some of the registers, so that there are now keyword searchable English summaries for entries. In order to aid accessibility, the database shows the summary information about each entry in the register alongside the image of the original register folio (usually in Latin).

Entry from the register of Archbishop William Zouche (1342-1352), showing the English index entries alongside the original Latin folio.

The most recent of our projects, ‘The Northern Way’, began in early 2019 and is due to finish in late 2021. Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), the project team have been indexing the registers of the Archbishops of York between 1304 and 1405, in partnership with The National Archives and with the support of York Minster. Items relating to the York Archbishops held by The National Archives have also been indexed as part of the project, and those indexes (without images) are in the process of being added to York’s Archbishops Registers Revealed.

The archives indexed by The Northern Way team cover a number of important themes, including the relationship between Scotland and England in the early 14th century, the Black Death, and the Northern Rising against King Henry IV. They highlight the role of the Archbishops of York during this period, how they coped with crises, and how the church impacted on wider society.

Occasionally the registers include interesting comments and illustrations, like this dragon from the first folio of the register of Archbishop Henry Bowet (1407-1423).

The common misconception is that these registers relate solely to York. In fact, they relate to the whole of the Northern Province, which covered all northern England, including parts of Lancashire and the old counties of Westmorland and Cumberland, as well as Nottinghamshire in the Midlands. The Archbishop also had personal jurisdiction over other areas, such as Hexham in Northumberland in the diocese of Durham, and Churchdown in Gloucestershire in the medieval diocese of Worcester, technically described as ‘peculiars’ because of that special jurisdiction.

The content itself is also very diverse – the registers are subdivided into sections, and cover everything from women in the Church (primarily religious women in convents), wills written by members of the clergy during the Black Death, the role of Archbishop Melton and his army of clergymen at the Battle of Myton in 1319, witchcraft and black magic, the operation of parish churches, and plans for visitations by the archbishop to churches, cathedrals, monasteries and convents (and his findings when he got there!). The archives are simply full of opportunities to support the history modules in schools, and for teaching the medieval period more generally. You can find out more about particular stories we’ve uncovered in the archives on our blog and on our Twitter feed.

Over the last few months, the search functionality on the York’s Archbishops Registers Revealed site has been vastly improved, with the introduction of a new ‘Advanced Search’ option to help users refine their search results. A new set of web pages is also due for completion over the coming weeks, which will provide more contextualising information about the registers, including why they were created, and detailed information on the roles of the Archbishop and senior church officials in the 14th century. A new ‘Further Resources’ section will also bring together a series of presentations, resources and a bibliography to help users explore the registers further.

Detail from the forthcoming new website homepage, 2021.

The indexing of all the digitised registers is not yet complete by any means, but hopefully future funding projects will continue to allow us develop the indexes and site functionality so that we can uncover even more about life in northern England between 1225 and 1650. Watch this space!

Laura Yeoman
Access and Digital Engagement Archivist
Borthwick Institute, University of York

Laura has also been the Project Officer on The Northern Way project since May 2021.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s