Life at the bottom of the heap in medieval England

Let’s visit the England of the middle ages. 

Why should we do that? Because making the occasional visit to the past is good for us. Finish your spinach and we’ll be ready to go. 

Medieval England was shamelessly hierarchical and society was generally thought of as being divided into three parts. We’ll start at the top, since they would have: The clergy were in charge of people’s spiritual wellbeing. This probably meant telling them all the ways and reasons they could end up in hell, but I don’t have a source for that, I’m just guessing. The clergy also prayed, which was considered a contribution to society.

Irrelevant photo: a rose

The warriors–for which you can read the aristocracy, upper and lower–fought when they were called on. Or at least they were expected to. If you rummage around in all the loose bits of history that no one bothered to file, you’ll find times when they were called on and said, “Sorry, I’m washing my hair right now.” That belongs in a different tale, but it explains why “at least they were expected to” snuck in at the top of the paragraph. 

Finally, at the bottom of society, the peasants, the laborers, and the and-so-forths kept everyone fed and housed to and and-so-forth’d, and they did whatever the other two groups told them to, because who were they to ask questions or have ideas of their own? 

And these divisions were sanctified by religion, which permeated every aspect of life. They would have been almost as self-evident as the knowledge that if you drop things they fall.

Hang onto the almost from that last sentence. This is a two-post visit and we’ll need it when we get to next week’s section.

In English Society in the Later Middle Ages, Maurice Keen—. 

But I need to interrupt myself here so I can apologize. We’ll be short on links today; I’m working largely from books. You remember books? They’re what came before pixels. 

Keen quotes the fifteenth-century Order of Chivalry, which said, “To the knight it sufficeth not that he be given the best arms and the best beast, but also that he be given seignory,” which Keen translates as lordship over lesser men. 

That includes women, of course. Look inside any medieval man and you’ll notice flocks of tiny, unacknowledged, and unquestioning women, cooking the food and washing someone else’s dirty linen. Not to mention sewing, spinning, planting, winnowing, weeding, brewing the ale, and looking after the chickens and cows. And if the family was high enough up on the social scale, embroidering.

Funny how they could do all that and still not be noticeable. I’m delighted that in our happy time we’ve left injustice, hierarchy, and inequality in the past. 

Giving us a wider glimpse of society, Master Ralph Acton wrote, “When God could have made all men strong, wise and rich, he was unwilling to do so. . . . He willed these men to be strong and healthy, wise or rich, that they might save their own souls by helping others through love of them: those others he willed to be weak or foolish or in want, that they might save their souls by enduring hardship in patience. Hence God says, the poor ye shall always have with you.”

Who was Master Ralph Acton? Possibly a fourteenth-century scribe. Also possibly somebody who didn’t exist, in which case we don’t know who wrote that. But the writings themselves do exist, and for our purposes that’s good enough. They reminded the reader that society’s divisions were created by god, so all its inequalities were for the best. 

Occasionally somebody would notice that the three-part division was a little rough and would work out a more detailed picture. The twelfth-century John of Salisbury structured society as a human body. The priesthood was the soul, the king was the head, the warriors were the hands, the laborers and craftspeople were the feet.

And the people who collected taxes? They were the intestines. 

Did he notice the implications of that? Your guess is as good as mine, and mine is that he did. Throughout history, tax collectors haven’t managed to collect much love.

John’s system included a few more body parts, but by now we have enough.

In the countryside, most people were villeins–peasants bound to the lord. And now that we’ve introduced them, to hell with the hierarchy, they’re the people we’re going to spend our time with. In 1290, they made up 60% of the rural population–or to be more accurate, of the rural population living on arable land. They weren’t just bonded to a lord, they were also bound to the land itself. Some definitions draw a line between a serf and a villein. Others count them as the same thing. Let’s not split hairs. We’re using the terms interchangeably here.

And by we, of course, I mean I

Villein, for all you word hounds out there, is the origin of the modern word villain. Not because the villeins were evil but because they were thought of (not by themselves, of course, but by the people who counted themselves as their betters) as uncouth in “mind and manners.” From there, it’s a short distance to being no good at all–a complete villain. 

The key to villeinage was the land. If the lord sold the land, the villeins went with it. But from about 1200 on, he (and lords had a habit of being he’s, although they could also be churches, monasteries, convents, or the very occasional she)–. Let’s start that over: After roughly 1200, he couldn’t just pick them up and sell them separately from the land. The kind of slavery that saw people bought and sold outright was common in Anglo-Saxon England–that’s before 1066, when the Normans stomped in and conquered the place–but became less common afterward. You can mark the shift as starting when William the Conqueror (the big, bad Head Norman himself) imposed a ban on selling slaves to other countries. 

It’s not clear why the shift took place. Morality might have driven it, but it wouldn’t have hurt that serfdom accomplished pretty much the same thing as slavery. And riding herd on villeins might have been easier than riding herd on slaves. 

So villeins weren’t free, but they weren’t exactly slaves either.

At the heart of the feudal system was the manor, which was run by the lord. Each manor had its own rules governing the relationship between lord and villein, and some were harsher than others. The tenants knew the rules as well as the lords did, since although the rules favored the lords heavily, they kept him from having complete, arbitrary control over their lives, leaving him only partial, semi-arbitrary control. 

Now let’s toss in another source, A Brief History of Life in the Middle Ages, by Martyn Whittock. 

The manor was made up of (1) desmesne land, which was farmed for the lord’s benefit; (2) land farmed by villeins, who paid for it by, among other things, farming the demesne; (3) land farmed by free tenants, who paid their rent in cash; and (4) common land, used by tenants in carefully defined ways. 

Villeins owed the lord a set amount of service, and the lord had the right to decide what services he wanted from them during that time. On one estate in the twelfth century, villeins owed five days a week. They might also owe a portion of their crops and animals, and they might owe cash on top of that. 

Villeins couldn’t marry or sell their property without the lord’s permission. They might owe tallages (unpredictable amounts of money that the lord could claim), wood silver (a fee for access to the lord’s woods), boon work (extra services at plowing and harvest times, just when the tenant’s own land needed the most work but who cared about that?), and heriot (the family’s best animal being owed to the lord when the tenant died). They might have to grind their grain at the lord’s mill, at the lord’s price. They might have to pay a fine for having taken part in some forbidden sexual activity–and any imaginative sexual activity was forbidden, along with a lot of activities that didn’t take much imagination. (The link there is to an earlier post on the subject.)

Surprise, surprise, this particular fine fell on women more often than on men. Suddenly they were noticeable.

The list goes on, but you get the picture. 

Villeins could and often did pay a cash rent as a substitute for service. Basically, they were buying back their time. But that didn’t make them free. They were still villeins.

Most serfs could also make wills and buy and sell land if they paid for the privilege. They could be evicted, but until the enclosure movement came along that was rare. (Again, the link’s to an earlier post. The enclosure movement wanders in about halfway down.) The tendency was for tenancies to be passed from one generation to the next–for a fee. If you think of anything a villein might want to do as involving the lord’s permission and a fee, you won’t go far wrong. 

I said serfs couldn’t leave the land. I should have said they couldn’t leave it legally. If they ran away and managed to live in a town for a year and a day, they became free. It’s an odd loophole in the system, and I don’t know its origin. But if they were caught and returned, they were subject to the lord’s justice. There are records of serfs bound in chains to keep them from taking off again. 

The lord ran the manor court, which had the right to impose physical punishments or fines for any act that broke the rules of the manor. And, conveniently enough, any fines the court imposed went to the lord.

Yes, of course the manor courts were impartial and justice was served. I hate it when you get cynical.

Now let’s complicate the picture. Free tenants lived among villeins, in the same villages. Keen paints a picture of village life in which two hierarchies intertwined and people’s social status depended not just on whether they were free or bonded but also on their prosperity. And the two didn’t necessarily line up neatly. A free cottager could be desperately poor. A villein could be prosperous, although most weren’t. It all depended on how much land a person had. A small minority might have upwards of thirty acres. The poorest free cottagers might have no more than a garden and depend on working for others to keep themselves and their families fed.

Telling a free man (which may also mean a woman; I’m not sure) from one who wasn’t free was a complicated business, and it came up in court cases, since only free men could use the royal courts. Villeins were stuck in the (utterly impartial) manor courts. It also came up because people looked for all possible loopholes to so they could be ruled free.

And here you need a warning about health and safety. Or truth in advertising. Or something along those lines. I’m compressing a long time period into a short space. When you compress time, sometimes you get wine, sometimes you get spontaneous combustion, and sometimes you get inaccuracies. So keep in mind that the royal courts weren’t in existence for the whole medieval period, and that even once they sprouted out of the damp ground of medieval politics, they didn’t sit there unchanged until the country rang a huge bell and the medieval period ended. Like any mushroom or bit of government, the courts grew and changed. As did the conditions of rural life.

Now go have a glass of wine and try not to set anything on fire.

To establish whether a person was free, the courts looked at all the things a villein might owe his lord. Did he have a pay a fee to give his daughter in marriage? Did he have to show up a fixed number of days to work for the lord with no clue what work he was going to be doing? Did he pay tallage? If the answer was yes, a serf he was and a serf he remained.

An assortment of people challenged their status as bondsmen, but what they were challenging was their individual status, not the system of bondage itself. Still, when a fair number of individuals pop up and say, “I don’t belong in this category,” you can take that as a sign that the system’s beginning to crack: The old categories don’t fit the realities of life.

Which is probably a good place to tell you that next week we’ll watch the system sprout a big honkin’ crack. In other words, we’ll look at the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. 

I do love a good revolt.

*

Anyone missing Brexit news should check out the Brexit Blog. It’s clearly written and to the point.

30 thoughts on “Life at the bottom of the heap in medieval England

  1. As you might suppose, I’d never complain about a visit to the Middle Ages.

    I disagree slightly with your point about every medieval man having his food cooked for him by a woman. As always, it depends on where and when you’re talking about, given that the Middle Ages was about 1,000 years long, but, if you were a lord of the manor, an aristocrat or the king, your food was cooked by men. I suspect the same was true if you were a merchant or a tradesman or craftsman able to afford servants.

    So many posts I read about the Middle Ages these days refer to links rather than books. It makes me doubt everything I’ve read.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Interesting point, and one I hadn’t thought of since I was just kind of browsing by the thought in passing. Thanks.

      I do agree about using the internet as a basis for our research. As much as I can, when I’m using online sources, which I often do, I try to limit myself to ones with some stamp of authority. The BBC posts some good history. Britannica is good but tends to be short. The occasional academic is online. Et cetera, I’m often driven to Wikipedia for the way it often gives an overview, but it makes me twitchy when I can’t confirm it. Outside of that, I have an image of us all passing misinformation around in an endless circle.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I don’t think inequality and hierarchy are a matter of the past. The rules of the game have changed, thought. Oppression is more subtle nowadays but ultimately it all boils down to influence and money. Now we have powerful countries on one side and usual suspects on the other. The rulers rule the world while the weak suffer what they must. Who are they to ask questions or have ideas of their own, right?

    Great post.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. This brings to mind the fact that medieval men and lots of men of today think they’re superior but in my opinion men couldn’t have survived this long without women!! Sure they’re physically strong but look at women and childbirth, men could not handle the pain!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh, they probably could if they had to. It’s not like a person has a choice once they’re in the situation. But it does speak to a different kind of strength–one our culture tends not to recognize. Or respect, while we’re at it.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. My somewhat cynical thought here is: same as it ever was. I get that conditions for all of us have improved but in the sense of character studies, all of these personalities/behaviors still exist in society. I look forward to the revolt. I could use some cheering up.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Indeed. We set our standards by the world around us, so a lot of what we consider hard (what?? no indoor plumbing?? you mean it gets dark when it gets dark??) no one would’ve given any thought to. But the contrast between the people who barely had enough food–or who didn’t have enough–and those who feasted would have stood out painfully.

      Like

  5. Pingback: The Peasants’ Revolt: England, 1381 | Notes from the U.K.

  6. Pingback: #SeniSal Roundup: Nov 25-29, 2019 ~ Esme Salon

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