The Archers and The Medieval Community

by Dr Philippa Byrne

10 Mar 2016

In my daily life, I have two major topics of conversation. The first is the Middle Ages – reasonable enough, given I am a medieval historian. My second great interest (although passion may be a more accurate term) is Radio 4’s long-running drama series The Archers. Naturally, when the opportunity came to combine the two – at the inaugural ‘Academic Archers’ conference in February 2016 – I did not let the opportunity pass me by.

It might reasonably be asked: what is the point of lavishing academic attention on a radio programme?  Well, sheer weight of numbers makes a compelling argument that The Archers is worth analysing – first launched in 1951, it runs to almost 18,000 episodes, with 5 million radio listeners and another million online. Listening (whether daily or to the Sunday omnibus) is part of our national routine.

The conference invited academics to consider how their own disciplines might shed light on various aspects of life in Ambridge (the home of the eponymous Archer family and others). There was discussion of how to map a fictional village, of accent change, of whether social care was failing Ambridge’s elderly residents. My contribution, as a medieval historian, was to examine the relationship between The Archers and the idea of the medieval community (a connection, which, I admit, might initially seem tenuous).

My own research focuses on medieval ideas of government and community, particularly in twelfth-century Europe. But this requires me to think more broadly about concepts of community and communities. Medieval theologians like Thomas Aquinas were intensely interested in the idea of community (communitas in Latin) and social organisation. Prompted by a careful reading of classical philosophers like Aristotle and Cicero, medieval authors asked how communities were organised in nature; how they were organised in cities; and how communities could be structured to ensure a good life for humankind.

By contrast, to describe a community as ‘medieval’ is scarcely a compliment today. The adjective either suggests a low level of development (‘medieval’ living conditions) or a certain type of social relations (a ‘medieval’ social order is positively anti-democratic). The other way in which ‘medieval’ is used – making every medievalist wince – is to denote a regime which is theocratic, punitive or barbaric.

This negative view of medieval communities, however, was not shared by certain nineteenth-century authors. William Morris (1834-96), the English author, designer and social activist, offered a strikingly positive account of medieval communities. Much of Morris’ writing (The Earthly ParadiseA Dream of John Ball) is about re-imagining the Middle Ages. He was not interested for purely antiquarian reasons: for Morris, the Middle Ages was a time when skilled manual labour had been valued – when the labourer truly was worthy of his hire. It was an era of craftsmen who lived together, peaceably, in fellowship. But Morris also saw the Middle Ages as a period during which traditional communities had come under attack from new social forces – from lords whose desire for profit threatened to dispossess traditional craftsmen and exclude them from political power. That shift had eventually resulted in the Victorian social inequality which so enraged Morris and his fellow socialist thinkers.

Morris’ take on the medieval community is a critique of his own developed Victorian society. He was anxious about life in the Victorian cities, about the low value placed on industrial labour, and saw the items fashioned by industrial production methods as neither long-lasting nor beautiful.

I was struck by how – in many ways – the community described by William Morris (and others like him) resembled The Archers’ Ambridge. The programme certainly has its ‘medieval’ moments. Many of the characters are preoccupied with demonstrating the ‘antiquity’ of their village (some have even written books about it, such as Lynda Snell’s Heritage of Ambridge). The community has just introduced a January ‘wassailing’ event, a supposedly Anglo-Saxon drinking ceremony in which the gods are beseeched to grant a good apple harvest. Inhabitants of Ambridge speak proudly about the medieval architecture of the village (although such comments prompting another, more cynical, character to respond that it was all ‘wattle, daub and plastic sheeting’).

This may make The Archers sound like some sort of pastoral idyll, stuck forever in a backwards-looking mode. But that is not quite the case. There is a similar sort of conflict in The Archers between tradition and modernity to that which William Morris envisioned in his imagined medieval community. Anyone who has inadvertently tuned in to Radio 4 at 10am on a Sunday might have caught some sense of how nervous characters are about the advent of technological innovations which disrupt village traditions. There are persistent grumblings about the pace of social change. This takes a number of different forms: a debate on whether ‘electronic milking’ will fundamentally and irreparably alter the bond between cow and farmer; the mixed blessing of a new road through the village, making commutes shorter, but severing the community in two. The programme also reflects broader fears about the future of farming itself: whether family-run farms are still viable as the country switches to new modes of food production, where economies of scale may be the only way to make a profit.

My contribution at the conference sought to highlight this note of tension at the heart of the programme. My point is not that The Archers’ scriptwriters have been reading William Morris and attempting – very subtly – to translate his ideas about medieval communities into radio drama. But, rather that, just as William Morris had his own vision of community relations – and how they change, for good or for ill, Radio 4 is similarly sketching out such a community. The Archers vocalises our own anxieties about what parts of the past we want to hang on to, and what we want to let go of. It is a daily discussion of exactly what kind of compromises we are willing to make for the sake of progress, and how we cope with, adapt to, or reject change.

Dr Philippa Byrne is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow in History at Somerville College, Oxford.

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