Be Curious: 'Curious Curye'

On Saturday 19 March, 2016 the Institute for Medieval Studies took part in the University-wide Be Curious festival, sponsored by the Wellcome Trust.

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The festival was an interdisciplinary public engagement event open to the city of Leeds general public. The theme of Be Curious was Health and Wellbeing, so our medievalists put together an exhibition, titled 'Curious Curye: Health and Wellbeing Through Time', to talk with the public about what sort of foods people in the Middle Ages ate, how they took care of themselves, and what sort of wellbeing issues were of general concern. In the main area of Parkinson Court, visitors had a chance to experience the taste of the Middle Ages through traditional medieval recipes produced by the University's Catering Services 'Great Food at Leeds'. 

Iona McCleery, who has made great strides at enlightening various audiences about medieval food and nutrition with her 'You Are What You Ate' project, was present to explain how each recipe fit into medieval society. While all the food was enjoyed, the pottage, a dish similar to a vegetable stew, was the most popular on the day. Overall, people were surprised at how pleasant the food was, imagining medieval food to have been 'boring' or 'disgusting'. 'It was a revelation really. The pottage was lovely,' said one visitor, who added that she would now be happy to eat medieval food every day.

In the basement of Parkinson Building, Leeds medievalists set up individual stalls to engage the public with their own research:

  • Rory Sellgren demonstrated the importance of spiritual wellbeing by asking children to offer coloured-in 'prayers' to assist a paper cut-out pilgrim climb up through purgatory.
  • Joanna Phillips helped make people aware that illness when travelling and fears of foreign disease are not just a modern-day issue. 
  • Sunny Harrison emphasised that it was just as important for medieval people to care for their animals as themselves, and introduced a number of children to the concept of blood-letting. 
  • Natalie Anderson and Iason-Eleftherious Tzouriadis taught visitors about combat and tournament armour, comparing it to modern sports equipment.
  • Alannah Santra surprised people with the fact that many modern day foods, such as pancakes and fried chicken, were around in the Middle Ages. 
  • Rachael Gillibrand taught visitors about the medieval methods for curing eye ailments: spectacles, surgery and saints relics. 
  • James Titterton thrilled visitors with the gruesome lengths to which starving soldiers under siege went to find food. 
  • Alaric Hall and Catherine Batt gave two performances of Old and Middle English recipes and descriptions of ailments and their cures, which included some very thoughtful discussion from the audience. 

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The basement stalls captured the attention of children, some of whom stayed for hours colouring in pictures of saints, making medieval spectacles, or playing educational games; however many adults provided positive feedback as well. 100% of surveyed visitors enjoyed the event, and most of the visitors spoken to by our volunteers seemed to feel that they'd learned something new about the Middle Ages or thought about the period in a different light. One visitor said that she'd not even considered that they might have spectacles and eye surgery in the Middle Ages, but that 'it was really a good thing'. Some of the more gruesome aspects of the Middle Ages were also put into historical context. When one visitor said that he was surprised to learn that starving soldiers under siege resorted to cannibalism; but when he was asked if he would have done the same if he were starving, he paused for a moment, then replied: ‘you’d just have to, wouldn’t you?’

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One of the most important comments repeatedly heard, however, was how 'relatable' medieval health and wellbeing is, and how the food, the medicine, and the things that concerned people were not as different from today as visitors had assumed they were when they’d walked in the building.

Over the course of the day, the medieval food stall upstairs saw 471 visitors and the basement stalls received 190 visitors.

'Curious Curye' was coordinated by the Medieval Studies Impact and Public Engagement Project Managers, Esther Kim, Alyx Mattison and Audrey Thorstad, with the help of Iona McCleery and the International Medieval Congress director, Axel Müller, but was made possible by the help of our stall holders and other volunteer medievalists Renee Goble, Hervin Fernandez-Aceves, Rose Sawyer and Vanessa Wright.