We’ve just enjoyed an excellent online lecture from York by Prof Sarah Rees Jones on how work to open up mediaeval records is giving us great new details, even personal stories, on how the North reacted to the Black Death in the mid-fourteenth century.
We’ve also enjoyed online church services and valued the way we can join in both local worship and drop in at Taizé and Iona for instance.
But the same revolution that has opened up access to some has restricted it for others: those without the technology; those who find the style of online events unhelpful; those who crave real presence. Many are included, for which I rejoice; some are newly excluded, at which I lament.
What was fascinating in the York talk, among many similarities and differences to these present times, was that Rees Jones pointed up just this same effect in the Black Death years.
As I know from my own research, those years saw English flower again as the language of poetry, instruction, the court and the law. Henry V writes home from Agincourt in English. The middling sort started to keep legal records in the burgeoning guilds for instance. New rights could be established and old ones secured. You could present your case in court in your mother tongue.
But as Rees Jones pointed out, there were losers too. Those who because of poverty, background, disability, poor education and all the rest did not have the chance to join in this new pattern of communication became even more excluded. It was a time when the poor got poorer and the rich richer, and seeds of social division were sown whose harvest we still reap today.
The York project is self-consciously trying to broaden access to old records and open up the learning adventure. Are we?