British medieval records award special status by UNESCO

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 Twenty items have been selected from the UK’s libraries, archives and museums to represent the outstanding heritage of the United Kingdom, including several that date back to the Middle Ages. They new items listed in the UK Memory of the World Register include the Cura Pastoralis of Gregory, the Gough Map, Wakefield Court Rolls, Winchester Pipe Rolls and records of The Great Hospital in Norwich.

The international-level register, which features items of global significance, includes items from the UK such as 1215 Magna Carta, the Mappa Mundi and the film The Battle of the Somme. The UK Memory of the World programme is part of UNESCO’s work to promote preservation of and access to the world’s archive holdings and library collections. The UK Register is available at www.unesco.org.uk/ukregister

“We were incredibly impressed by the diversity and richness of these nominations to the register,” said David Dawson, Chair of the UK Memory of the World Committee. “These are some of the UK’s exceptional, but lesser-known documentary riches. By awarding them with the globally recognised UNESCO Memory of the World status we hope to elevate them to the world stage.”

The winners were chosen by the expert committee of the UK Memory of the World programme, following a nomination and review process.

The archive of St Giles’s Hospital (known as ‘The Great Hospital’), founded in c. 1249, is said to have ‘no rival anywhere in the country’ and is labelled as the ‘fullest and by far the most important set of British medieval hospital records to survive the English Reformation’.

County Councillor Derrick Murphy, Leader of Norfolk County Council and Chairman of the Norfolk Records Committee, said: “I am delighted and proud that the Norfolk Record Office has won this prestigious award. Professor Carole Rawcliffe’s recent work on medieval hospitals has shown just how unique and important these records are. Most of England’s 1,300 medieval hospitals were destroyed, with their records, at the Reformation, but the records of the Great Hospital – and the hospital itself – escaped destruction. This unique instance of a hospital and its records both surviving from the middle ages shows an unbroken continuity of purpose and documentation which is exceptionally rare in this country.

“The fortunate survival of these records provides evidence for a huge range of subjects, covering a wide spectrum of society over many centuries, including the very rich (as patrons), people of more modest means (as smaller donors), and the clients, both resident and non-resident, who were mainly the poor and infirm, the disabled, the homeless and the elderly. These records are also essential for the study of medieval attitudes towards piety, and the spiritual needs and wellbeing of an urban population in the middle ages. It is fitting that the exceptional archive of the Norwich Great Hospital should be honoured in this way and placed on the world stage”.

James Carswell, Cabinet Member for Culture, Customer Service, Communications and Adult Education at Norfolk County Council, said, “the Norfolk Record Office’s ‘Designated’ collection has long been recognised as being of outstanding importance and I am delighted that a significant element of it has now gained further recognition by being awarded United Nations status. Inclusion in UNESCO’s UK Memory of the World Register is an acknowledgement that this is the most important surviving archive of a British medieval hospital. The Great Hospital archive contains some outstandingly significant documents, such as the foundation charter of c.1249 and the 1256 will of the founder, Bishop Walter de Suffield, but it is the comprehensiveness of it as a whole, over many centuries, which really sets it apart and makes it such an important primary source”.

The Gough Map, dated to the fourteenth century, is the most important and most enigmatic cartographic representation of Great Britain from the medieval period. It is the earliest surviving route map of Britain, and the earliest surviving map depicting Britain with a recognisable coastline and depicts over six hundred towns and villages.

The Wakefield court rolls are an almost complete series of manorial rolls documenting the business of the manor of Wakefield from 1274 to the abolition of manorial jurisdiction in 1925. The court rolls are an important source for local history and for legal, social and economic history in general. They touch on many themes including: law-keeping, commerce, taxation, debt, customs, the English legal system, agriculture, textile industry, food-production, climate change, social structure, industry, crime, poverty, landscape, inheritance, record-keeping, vernacular architecture, women’s rights and population. The rolls’ importance lies in the near-unique way in which they portray the activities of a strictly localised society over a very long and continuous period of time.

The Winchester Pipe Rolls are another set of manorial accounts, which date back to 1208-9 and record income and expenditure across the Bishop of Winchester’s estates in the most minute detail. Spanning 502 years of English history from King John to Queen Anne, representing around 15,000 separate manorial accounts they are a source not only for the economic, social and agrarian history of southern England, but also for political and building history.

Sources: UNESCO, Norwich County Council

Sharan Newman