This Easter holiday, Explore York Archives and Dr Eliza Hartrich from the University of York are offering families a unique chance to experience York’s medieval archives in an artist-led workshop.

Many families will be familiar with York’s Roman and Viking heritage, but few will have had the chance to explore the city’s magnificent collection of medieval archives.

These records date from 12th century through to the 15th century; in other words, from the time of Henry II to the time of Richard III. Together, these archives are known as the city’s medieval civic collections.

During the Middle Ages, York was a significant centre of power and England’s second city. Its status as a cathedral city and the capital of the North meant the city was embroiled in both regional and national politics.

The records in the archive reflect this, documenting visits of kings and nobles, as well as more commonplace events.

Aware of York’s importance, the officials of the city kept meticulous records, many of which survive despite floods, war, and fire.

But what types of records remain and what can they tell us about the lives of ordinary people in the Middle Ages?

Dr Hartrich, lecturer in late medieval history at the University of York, says: ‘York’s medieval officials wrote things down for many different reasons.

"They made formal books recording the laws of the city and important government decisions - the things they thought future generations of York citizens would need to know.

"But they also kept much more everyday records, like expense accounts and resolutions to debt disputes. These are the documents that often prove the most interesting!

"York’s medieval mayors would be shocked to learn that 21st-century York residents might want to know about 15th-century tavern brawls, pigsties, or builders’ wages."

York Press: Faces from the past: an illustrated page from York's medieval Freemen's RegisterFaces from the past: an illustrated page from York's medieval Freemen's Register (Image: Explore York Libraries and Archives)

The surviving medieval records in the civic collections are remarkable precisely because they range over so many aspects of life in the city.

They include memoranda books (containing important things to remember), registers, minute books (known as house books), account books, and court books.

They might not sound very interesting, but contained within the covers of these volumes lie fascinating details of everyday lives in medieval York.

There are some heartening examples of camaraderie: all the saddle makers of York came to the council chamber in March 1477 to dispel rumours that their fellow saddler John Colyn was Scottish. Colyn, it later became apparent, was simply born in Darlington!

Other tales are less happy: Henry Stockton’s widow was permitted to keep selling salmon on Foss Bridge after her husband’s death, but only if she remained single.

We also can see exactly what foods the city officials of York purchased when hosting feasts for local nobles, and what they paid the minstrels in their service.

The archives are also beautiful and mysterious objects in their own right. The pages are filled with unfamiliar language; weird and wonderful scripts; and they bear the physical marks of having survived over 500 years of turbulent history.

Yet the 500 years that separates today’s residents of York from their medieval counterparts is also what makes these records challenging to access.

They are written in Middle English (and sometimes in Latin), using letter forms that can be difficult to recognise. To overcome this, Explore York Archives in partnership with Dr Hartrich and the University of York are offering something a little different…

Creative workshop for families (ages 8+)

On Wednesday April 3, we will be giving families the opportunity to learn about medieval York in a fun, creative way.

The workshop will start with participants experiencing the medieval archives first-hand and hearing about the stories they contain.

Families will then get crafting with imaginative activities inspired by the medieval records. The crafting sessions will be designed and led by experienced artists and makers.

The workshop is free and suitable for children aged 8 and over. Please note that children attending should be accompanied by at least one adult.

To book your place go to

This is a one-off event and places are limited, so be sure to book early!

Generously funded by the University of York's Arts & Humanities Impact Fund.

Dr Julie-Ann Vickers is the civic and public records archivist at Explore York Libraries and Archives