Sunday, September 23, 2012

On the Trail of the Medieval Vernons

Almost twenty years ago I stumbled upon a mass of people with the name of Vernon.  To be precise, I did not actually meet them as all were long since dead. In fact, I think that rather ironically I have probably only ever met three or four living Vernons. These long dead Vernons' names though lept out to me from yellowing volumes of medieval charters and musty scented vellum rolls. At first the finer detail of their lives, relationships and deeds were hazy and confused when viewed through the telescope of time. However, like a blurred horizon, there was just enough visible to encourage me to keep staring to try to bring the detail into better focus and make sense of what I was seeing.

In their day Vernons helped shape the medieval world, but for me as a young history undergraduate at St Andrews University in Scotland, their lives helped shape how I saw the medieval world. History is often taught from the top down. Countries, religions, wars, monarchs and power-broking nobles. For me, uncovering the ebb and flow of the fortunes of the various branches of this one family gave me a different, more personal, insight into the changing medieval world. It helped me understand the top, from, if not the bottom of the feudal and social pyramid, then at least the middle from where the medieval Vernons generally forged their various lives.

It also gave me the chance to step outside the syllabus and follow my thoughts. There was a thrill in checking out books from the university library which had not seen daylight in the best part of a century. Indeed the shelf code for many of these evocatively named medieval tomes such as the Inquisitions Post Mortem, Curia Regis Rolls, and Pipe Rolls still springs to mind - DA90. There were raised eyebrows from tutors who were not probably not quite sure where this sudden enthusiasm had come from in someone who had been quite an average student until then. There were certainly many more raised eyebrows from my friends who were more used to me expousing on the relative merits of McEwans 80/- (the best value beer in the Student Union Bar), than detailing the numerous flaws in sixteenth-century Heralds' Visitations.

In a way though, the published volumes I stumbled on at St Andrews were only the travel guides. I have simply kept on following the trail that they had set me on. Over the years there were trips across England and Normandy and countless days at archives delving into those medieval documents whose silent scratched scripts still bring the world of medieval England back to life. Lives of men like the intriguingly named 'John Fuck God' whose name a medieval clerk carefully recorded during one fifteenth-century court case.

There were debriefings of my thoughts and views along the way; a dissertation at St Andrews on 'The House of Vernon, 1000-1250' followed a year later by an M.Phil at Fitzwilliam College at Cambridge University on 'The Vernons of Haddon, Derbyshire in the Fifteenth Century.'  In the late 90s, the internet also opened up access to the thoughts, research, challenges and support of a wide network of other people around the world; people like Todd Farmerie and Matthew Connolly on, Bob Carter and Dallie Vernon on 

Now in 2012, it is to the internet I am turning again with the plan that this blog will give me a further chance to debrief some of my thoughts. Carrying around in your mind a few centuries worth of information and theories on long dead people is surely not good for you! I mostly hope though that this blog and my thoughts will be of use to others trying to look back through the telescope of time at the same distant medieval horizon.

The Vernons' story goes back ten centuries. It goes back to the world of the Northmen and Normandy. It is a tale of conquest and subjugation. A tale of land and allegiances. A tale of families and people. Posts on this blog will probably come in fits and starts, depending on how often my mind can extract itself from the day to day world of the twenty-first century and allow itself the leisure of jumping back to medieval Vernon, Shipbrook, Haddon and Harlaston. If you're able to join me, I am very welcoming to travellers on the same road.