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Museums, Missions, Microfilm, and More

by Morgan Wilson

Last summer, I received a Pre-Dissertation Grant from NACBS that funded a one-month archival research trip to London. Much of my time was spent at the British Library and the Royal Asiatic Society, though this trip also facilitated my first-ever visit to a major museum’s institutional archives. Thanks to this grant, I was able to embark on a new phase of turning my dissertation idea into a reality by confirming the existence of a body of primary sources that could support a full-length project. 

My research uses the acquisition of Korean artifacts by London’s largest museums to explore the cultural relationships between Britain and Korea in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This was a time of change and conflict as new ties were forged between this peninsular kingdom and other parts of the world. This key period included early diplomatic relations between Britain and Korea, the establishment of the Anglican English Church Mission in Korea, and Japan’s annexation of Korea as a colony. Korea was positioned between other regional powers like Russia and China, and becoming more accessible to increasingly global powers like France, the United States, and Britain through treaties, Christian missions, and fledging trading ties.

Despite a sizeable British presence on the peninsula, and widespread interest in other East Asian artifacts and culture in Britain itself, historians of the British Empire have paid little attention to Korea, instead focusing on the political, economic, and cultural relationships with China and Japan. While Korea’s smaller profile suggests a formidable research challenge, it also provides an opportunity to reexamine familiar threads from British historiography within a different context.

Starting in the 1880s, the British Museum and other institutions began acquiring Korean art and artifacts through British travelers to East Asia, introducing Korean culture to many local observers. London museums soon held an array of objects, such as centuries-old coins, ancient earthenware dishes, contemporary painted scrolls, and colorful silk clothing. These were joined by bamboo fans, bronze spoons, and gold jewelry, though it is ceramics that have since become representative of Korean artifact collections.

Missionaries, diplomats, and other travelers sold or donated artifacts from abroad to British museums throughout the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries. Their ability to acquire these items was facilitated by imperialism in the form of wide-reaching political and commercial networks. Relationships between imperialism and artifact acquisition have been explored to a remarkable degree with regard to Britons in places like India and Egypt that became colonies or protectorates, with missionaries, diplomats, and travel writers as early key players in possessing and analyzing both historical artifacts and contemporary materials produced in the areas where they worked and explored.

My project highlights such figures from Britain who traveled and worked across the Korean peninsula in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Korean context has the potential to challenge assumptions underlying previous studies set in British-dominated territories. The British presence was smaller than in many other places, and was established as the Korean kingdom became the colony of another empire, continuing well into Korea’s colonial period (1910-45). Consequently, missionaries, diplomats, and other British travelers to Korea did not become the forerunners of British imperial control that they have been in other regions. This outcome presents an opportunity to rethink assumptions about the relationship between the British Empire and an array of individuals that have been associated with imperialism within British studies. 

The Pre-Dissertation Grant enabled me to locate a range of valuable sources, but I am currently focusing my research efforts on the English Church Mission’s early activities in Korea, and how the missionaries interacted with Korean people, history, and culture. While this group was primarily concerned with evangelism, it also produced early British scholars of Korea like Bishop Mark Napier Trollope (1862-1930), who led the ECM for two decades and donated Korean books, manuscripts, and intricately drawn maps created in the eighteenth century to the Bodleian Library at Oxford. Thanks to years of living in Korea and forming ties to local people, missionaries were well-positioned to acquire items for themselves, and Trollope’s example suggests they may have contributed Korean objects to other major British collections. 

Before my journey to London, I worried that there would not be enough readily available primary material on this group. Fortunately, my fears were largely allayed by the realization that the British Library alone holds dozens of microfilm reels of the Mission’s documents and images from my chosen time period and beyond. Despite knowing of its prevalence in archives around the world, finding these reels brought further excitement since it brought my first-ever experience of working directly with microfilm. Over time, this may turn out to be only a minor milestone in my scholarly pursuits, but I was excited to locate so much material. The Pre-Dissertation Grant not only helped me solidify the groundwork for my dissertation, but also gave me practical research experience that I hope to carry well beyond this project.  

Morgan Wilson is a Ph.D. Candidate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She was awarded the NACBS Pre-Dissertation Grant in 2019.

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Louisa Foroughi, PhD Student at Fordham University, shares how the 2019 NACBS Dissertation Fellowship has supported her research project, “What Makes a Yeomen? Status, Religion, and Material Culture in Later Medieval England”

I first visited the church of St. Edmund, King and Martyr, in Acle, Norfolk, in August 2018, looking for traces of its most famous parishioner, Robert Reynes (d. 1511). In addition to holding agricultural land, Reynes worked as a scribe, and served as a bailiff, churchwarden, and guild alderman in Acle manor and parish. He was thus a quintessential “yeoman,” usually defined as an affluent farmer situated on the rural social hierarchy above husbandmen and below gentlemen.

My dissertation explores the cultural and social construction of yeoman identity in rural England, c. 1348-1538, focusing on how medieval yeomen performed their status through religion, material culture, and text. I have quantitatively and qualitatively analyzed almost 2,400 cases from the Court of Common Pleas, and over 400 wills produced by husbandmen, yeomen, and gentlemen from East Anglia. I have also produced two case studies focused on yeoman manuscript compilers, including Robert Reynes. My work reveals the practices and signifiers that yeomen used, such as dress, piety, and office holding, in order to distinguish themselves from other rural social groups.

The Church of St. Edmund, King and Martyr, in Acle, Norfolk

The men who claimed yeoman status provide, however, only a partial view of the development of their identity. Women in yeoman families were critical to their status performances, even though, unlike “gentlewomen,” they had no status identifier of their own. The NACBS Dissertation Fellowship is funding my research into the ways in which the female relatives of yeomen participated in creating, maintaining, and changing their families’ statuses. As recent studies of urban and gentry women have shown, women in medieval England performed paid and unpaid labor; made strategic decisions about inheritances; maintained their family’s standard of living; educated their sons and daughters; and upheld their family’s reputation through their behavior and religious practices. But accessing their roles in these varied arenas of life is difficult. Women were legally, socially, and economically disadvantaged in medieval society, and consequently left fewer written records. The lives of rural and non-elite women are particularly poorly documented.

But because the female relatives of yeomen came from comparatively wealthy, literate, and powerful families, they are better documented than other peasant women. In the course of my initial research on yeoman testators from Norfolk and Suffolk, I discovered that nearly fifty of their wives, widows, or daughters had left wills, simply by noting whenever a woman with the same surname as a yeoman testator appeared in wills indices or databases. As part of the NACBS grant, I have collected all of these wills and am searching for further documents written by women related to the 187 Norfolk and Suffolk testators described as “yeomen.” Beginning with women with the same surname and then advancing to those close in time and place to testators, I intend to find a core group of eighty to one hundred women linked by marriage or birth to known yeoman families. The sample size I have selected for the female relatives of yeomen is intended to offset the idiosyncrasies of wills, while still providing a manageable body of evidence. I will later select four to six women to serve as closer case studies, and seek them out in parish and manorial records. I have already spent one month in England, during which time I gathered the wills of 167 Norfolk women whom I am linking to yeoman relatives. I will continue this work when I return to archives in Norfolk, Suffolk, and London for three months in the spring.

A chance survival I encountered in Acle Church offers an example of my approach and anticipated findings. In the floor near the rood screen lies the brass of Emma and William Gay, d. 1505. Emma’s name struck me immediately because I had previously located her will, which is written in Robert Reynes’s hand and in which he is named as one of her executors. By the time she wrote her will, Emma had been widowed twice over. She provided for her daughter Margaret’s future by leaving her valuable goods, including a blue belt decorated with silver and a yellow and green coverlet. Emma also owned a house and fields, which she asked her executors to sell after her death to fund her generous religious bequests, including a new mass book for Acle church.

Through her high standard of living, Emma would have confirmed her husbands’ wealth and status—but she may have been wealthier than either of them, having survived them both. Through her religious gifts, she demonstrated the family’s faith—but she may have been especially pious, as she also left her daughter a set of prayer beads, a personal mark of faith. She herself forged connections with local yeomen when she sold her lands to three men, including Robert Reynes, whom she also named as her executor. Finally, Emma left money for the memorial brass, asking for prayers for her and her husband’s soul. Fittingly, it bears the date of her death, rather than his. Emma Gay’s will demonstrates that through wealth and longevity, women at a social level equivalent to the yeomanry could use material culture and piety to elevate their own status and that of their families.

Emma’s will and memorial brass are the most direct witnesses to her life, as women appear far less frequently in manorial and legal documents than their husbands. To augment wills written by the female relatives of yeomen, I will visit the parish churches patronized by yeoman testators and their families to search for further material evidence of their presence. I will also visit yeoman buildings such as the Bayleaf Wealden Farmhouse, which shows how architecture structured domestic life, and view artifacts comparable to those mentioned in yeoman wills, like the silver mounts on Emma’s belt. These spaces and objects lend materiality to a world that scholars not resident in England can rarely access. I am grateful to the NACBS for providing me with the opportunity to expand our knowledge of the lives of rural women, and the identities they helped to create. 

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