Do TV presenters really investigate?
In May 2022, the Lucy Worsley Investigates series had a film on the Black Death (repeated in February 2023, when I saw it). We were given the story of mid-14th Century Britain’s response to the dreadful plague. The BBC promotional blurb was full of how our heroine would investigate the “mysteries … of some of the most infamous and brutal chapters in British history, finding new witnesses and compelling evidence.” In some versions the question was asked: “What will she uncover?”. The answer is: not very much in the case of the show I saw. The PBS blurb ran: “She uncovers forgotten witnesses, re-examines old evidence and follows new clues.” I can’t speak to other episodes in the series, but of the Black Death show I think it’s fair to say that we were given no uncovering of “forgotten witnesses”, no “re-examination” of existing evidence and hardly any examples of “new clues”, and perhaps none.
The heart and main strand of the programme took us to Walsham le Willows village in Suffolk, and its peasant families. We saw how the plague wiped out, for instance, three generations of male heads of household of the extended Cranmer tribe, and thus their tenancies were inherited by Olivia Cranmer, a female scion. (Niggling point: the show was wrong to say the Black Death had “decimated” the population, in Walsham or more widely. It was far worse than that: it – broadly speaking – halved the population. Decimation would have reduced it by a tenth.)
Dr Worsley, joint chief curator of the Historic Royal Palaces, gave us the impression that she had unearthed these details from the village’s unique Court Rolls, which she acknowledged were rendered convenient to her “investigation” by having been translated from archived handwritten manuscript Latin and transmogrified into published modern English printed type. She peered intently at these pages, running her finger from place to place and giving every impression of joining the dots in an act of discovery.
This was all, I think, highly disingenuous. A light internet search shows us that at least since the 1990s Walsham’ s Court Rolls were the go-to source for the social and economic consequences of the Black Death on rural life. Ray Lock, an amateur local historian, had by 1998 seen his translation and analysis of the Back Death years of the Walsham Rolls into print. The plague’s advancement of female inheritance and peasant wages in Walsham were popularised in a 2009 novel by Professor John Hatcher, a Cambridge economic historian who precisely wanted to bring to life the drama hiding in the Court Rolls’ terse tax records. Indeed, in 2013, Hatcher wrote a piece on Walsham for the BBC’s “official website for BBC History Magazine and BBC History Revealed”. It told in brief the essence of the Lucy Worsley “investigation”. At least two female historians – Sally Fisher (in 2010) and Vanessa King (in 2015 and 2016) – put detailed analysis of Walsham’s female inheritances into the public domain. I found these sources within a few minutes of wondering what, if anything, Dr Worsley was investigating or discovering and which “forgotten witnesses” she was unearthing.
Of the kindly lights who had been laying out the Walsham story for years, Dr Worsley cited by name only John Hatcher, whose book she didn’t mention and whose on-screen interview with her was allowed to seem like a sort of unearthing, as though he had hitherto been hiding arcane insight in the fenland mists swirling around Corpus Christi, his Cambridge University college.
I lightly disparage Dr Worsley’s keenness to cast her modern, liberationist, and feminist eye over medieval events. She seemed keen to give us a picture of a vast suffering peasant lumpen majority exploited and oppressed by a male, priestly or aristocratic minority. That’s an easy sell and presumably not altogether wrong. The plague certainly seemed to contemporaries to turn the world upside down. The subtleties of processes by which society had been changing before the cataclysm and the Black Death’s part in further long-term changes were perhaps beyond a deliberately mainstream TV show. But so far as I know – and from reading around the Walsham material a bit – there were great varieties of peasant and female experience before the upheavals. Indeed, the Cranmers were in the higher echelons of peasant society and – as Dr Worsley did note – their pre-crisis paterfamilias was wily and even rebellious. And female inheritance was not a “radical” innovation as Dr Worsley explicitly stated, but merely uncommon in a world of male primogeniture whose habits have only partly been dismantled even now.
I don’t suppose this case of an account of the Back Death is especially reprehensible. I am more concerned to point out the problem with television’s “presenter-led” history-telling. I am inclined to think lots of presenters are seduced or pressured into populism by broadcaster firms and institutions to be zingy. Quick serious reform might be difficult. For a few years we can expect female and ethnic minority presenters (and themes) to be over-represented, in a corrective response to their hitherto having been under-represented. We can expect a sort of perkiness of broadcasting style which smacks of infantilism, as though the audience could not bear a moment’s deliberation or anything counter-intuitive to Comfort Zone expectations. Besides, broadcasters do perhaps often feel they have a mission to update and reform the antediluvian masses.
With luck, much of that will come out in the wash of normal historiographical revisionism. (TV is already a bit better on WWI than it used to be.)
Right now, an easy single reform I suggest is that anyone commissioning, editing or writing a history programme should publish leads to source material underpinning their argument, and – additionally – source material which counters it. Broadly speaking, this sort of process helps keep serious book and journal writing fairly honest.
Letting the audience see the underlying processes whereby research and insight surface on-screen would go a long way to help hoi ploi understand both what we see and hear, and how knowledge is accumulated.
I do see that the great merit of television presentation is that it can be popular. So it likes to be accessible and attractive. It likes to show a presenter on a journey or quest. Whether it’s the personal backstories of Who Do You Think You Are? or the artwork provenance issues of Fake or Fortune?, there are niggling questions as to who actually did the research behind the scenes. Often, as in Dr Worsley’s Black Death show it matters that TV respect the body of research and insight that pre-existed their light dippings. When a professional historian is the presenter, as indeed when a professional journalist is in the role, the viewer is entitled to know whether the presenter was fulfilling their prime duty as provider of imprimatur. A big part of that is the obligation to be clear as to their role in whatever research or investigation is being presented.
Quite often the best that can be claimed by presenters is that they were operating as a personable non-specialist. That is: as an experienced and trustworthy amateur in the material of their show rather than as an investigative sleuth, let alone as a prime – original, academically publishable – researcher or intellectual in the field in question.
Here are some of the publicly available sources which seem to underpin Dr Worsley’s thesis.
Ray Lock, ed., The Court Rolls of Walsham Le Willows 1303-50 (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 1998) and The Court Rolls of Walsham Le Willows 1351-99 (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2002)
John Hatcher, billed by the show as an economic historian but with no reference to his vivid handling of the Court Rolls data:
The Black Death: The Intimate Story of a Village in Crisis 1345-50 published in 2009
“History explorer: the catastrophe of the Black Death”, December 2013
History Extra (“The official website for BBC History Magazine and BBC History Revealed”), December 2013
Sally Fisher, 2010 (not mentioned in the show)
“Landholding, Inheritance, and the Seasons: Reading Women and Space in Fourteenth-Century Manorial Court Rolls,” in Megan Cassidy-Welch (ed.), Medieval Practices of Space and Place. Special issue of Parergon, 27.2 (2010): 133-56.
Vanessa King , 2015 and 2016 (not mentioned in the show)
Both these references are freely downloadable at Academia.edu
King, Vanessa. 2016. Family Fortunes in Fourteenth-Century Walsham le Willows: The Hawys and the Lenes. Foundations: Journal of the Foundation For Medieval Genealogy, 8, pp. 3-14. ISSN 1479-5078 [Article]
“The Rampolye Family and the Black Death”, The Genealogists’ Magazine, March 2015
Away from Walsham, but mentioning London and Sussex, this source was given screen time and credited usefully.
“Post pandemic: how the years after the Black Death briefly became a ‘golden age’ for medieval women”, 2014 and 2021
Professor Barron’s case was that the Black Death allowed or forced some female scions of artisanal businesses to take over various aspects of formerly male trades and were accorded some civic regard. She went on to say that as these trades developed into something like middle class businesses, respectability dictated that the feminine bosses retreated to wifely or womanly roles. That was all usefully said, though my own take is that at every level of society and in every era, with or without emancipation, plenty of women held much more sway over, and were often far more useful to, their husbands than is implied by their legal or public status.