In the stratified world of medieval England, the yeoman was wedged into a slot between the gentry and the peasants. Then history came along and blurred the categories, leaving confusion in its wake.
History will do that if you let it.
The hazy definition of a yeoman
One way to define both the medieval aristocracy (they had titles) and the gentry (the people just under them, who didn’t), is to say that they owned land but didn’t (god forbid!) get their hands dirty by working it. So we can define yeomen as people who owned some land and also worked it.
There were more yeomen than either gentry or aristocrats, but nowhere near as many of them as of the people below them–the serfs and free but poor laborers. Above all, yeomen were free. In an age where most people who worked the land were serfs, that was hugely important.
If that all sounds clear, stay with me. I can get laundry muddy while it’s still in the machine.
Yes, thank you. It’s a gift.
A yeoman could hold a fairly wide range of land and still be a yeoman. In The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England (you might want to get your hands on a copy, because you never know when you’ll need it, do you?), Ian Mortimer tells us (or me, since you haven’t gotten your copy yet) that the most prosperous yeomen would have been well fed and comfortable, with servants to help with both the housework and on the land. Some, in fact, rented whole estates from lords, ran the manor courts, and effectively functioned as lords. After the plague, this became relatively common, although some definitions will tell you that owning land was central to the definition.
So some yeomen owned land and some rented it. Owning land was central to the definition of the yeoman and also wasn’t necessary.There’s your first bit of clarity breaking down, so let’s confuse the picture more.
They weren’t all in the same economic situation. Well below the most prosperous yeomen were others with some thirty acres of land, a third of which (like all land in this period) needed to lie fallow each year, leaving them with twenty acres that produced crops each year. In a good year, they’d be okay. In a bad year–in a series of bad years–they wouldn’t be.
And below them? A yeoman might have no more than eight acres, and a bad year might force him to sell it, leaving him and his family to find whatever way they could to support themselves.
In his sixteenth century Chronicles, Raphael Holinshed (don’t feel bad; I never heard of him before either) described yeomen as having free land worth £6 per year and as not being entitled to bear arms.
Other sources will also tell you that yeomen kept arms and fought for whoever their lord was, with yeomen becoming a category of soldier. The contradiction might be explained by the passage of time: What century was it when you opened the shutters and looked out at this green and pleasant land?
It’s also possible that it can’t be explained that way. A yeoman’s son left an account of his father fighting for the king against the Cornish rebels in 1497–before Holinshed– and being not just armed but on horseback.
Aren’t the gaps and contradictions in the historical record fun?
In English Society in the Later Middle Ages, Maurice Keen talks about the terms yeoman, husbandman, ploughman, and hind coming into use in the fifteenth century, replacing the earlier division of the rural population into villein, bondman, and cottar, whose point of reference is the manor. Do what you like with that.
Were yeomen a class?
That will depend, at least partly, on how you define class. In an age when land ownership was the measure of your social standing, a yeoman who rented his land from a lord might have gone against expectations by being materially better off than a yeoman who owned only a small piece. Their role in village life would have been very different and their economic interests might have been different. What united them as a category was that in a time when most people who worked the land were serfs, they were free. And, of course, that they weren’t gentry, even if at the top end they brushed up against the gentry.
So were they a class?
Forget it. I’m staying out of this.
A village’s more prosperous yeoman families (yeo-families?) were likely to fill the local roles, becoming the ale tasters, the jurors, the haywards, the constables, the tithing men, the churchwardens. They might also have become the lords’ retainers and so part of the lords’ households, and at some point, the word came to mean retainer, attendant, guard, subordinate official.
But you noticed the word man tucked inside yeoman, right? Landowners were entirely or overwhelmingly male, and power (and with it, the slant of thought and language) was overwhelmingly male, but this was an age when adults married and if they could, had kids. So what were the wives and daughters of yeomen called? Ask Lord Google about yeowomen and he’ll lead you to only the most marginal of dictionaries. The respectable ones blink their eyes hazily and say, “Yeo-what?”
The absence of yeo-words for the yeoman’s family members weighs (as far as I can tell, and keep in mind that I have no expertise in this field whatsoever) on the side of them not being a class or definable group that’s expected to behave as a group and restock itself.
On the side of seeing yeomen as a cohesive group, though, if not necessarily a self-perpetuating one, were the Sumptuary Laws of 1363, which forbid yeomen or their families from wearing silver, gold, jewels, enamelware, silk, embroidery, or any of the more expensive furs. Their clothing had to be made from fabric that cost no more than £2 for the whole cloth.
What does the whole cloth mean? My best wild guess is a full bolt, because £2 was a shitload of money at that point.
Ditto an act of 1445 that prohibited anyone of yeoman status or below from sitting in Parliament.
On the side of not seeing them as a cohesive group, some of the more prosperous yeomen intermarried with the gentry. Some might apprentice their children to tradesmen–the more prosperous ones to the more lucrative trades and the less to the less. On either level, though, they moved into a different category within the medieval social structure.
The children of some yeomen might become servants in other households, and here we need to stop and look at the role of servants.
In How to Be a Tudor, Ruth Goodman says that servants were often in their teens and likely to work only a few years before marrying and setting up their own households. The divide between servant and master or mistress wasn’t huge, and it wasn’t just the rich who had servants. The servants of the non-rich, though, weren’t there to provide personal services. A small-scale husbandman–a category of farmers below the yeomen–might take on a servant to help with the housework or the land, and there was always plenty of that.
The servant’s work depended on the household they served, and being a servant was less a question of class than of age. The child of a prosperous yeoman might serve in a richer household, and a Tudor-era description of dinner at a viscount’s house (dinner being at 10 a.m.) involved the gentleman usher, the yeoman usher, the yeoman of the ewery (in charge of hand washing and towels), the gentlemen waiters, the yeoman of the cellar, and I have no idea how many other people running around and bowing (even to an empty room).
For our purposes, what matters in all this silliness is yeoman seems to be a title here, not a distinct class of person. He’s not the top servant in the dining room, but he’s there and he has a job title, matching one of the definitions in the Collins Dictionary: a lesser official in a royal or noble household. They also toss in a subordinate to an official (a sheriff, for example) or to a craftsman or trader.
Yeomen and the military
Henry VII created the Body Guard of the Yeomen of the Guard, known to their friends and family as the Yeomen of the Guard. They’re the oldest military corps in Britain, having guarded not just the kings and queens but Charles II during the Commonwealth, when II was in exile in France and the king of nothing at all.
Their job traditionally involved guarding the inside of the monarch’s palaces and tasting his (or occasionally her) meals in case someone was trying to poison him. Or her. One of them got the monarch’s bed ready and one slept outside the bedroom. In a very un-British defiance of tradition, that bit of rigamarole’s been abandoned, but the job titles–sorry, ranks–still exist: Yeoman Bed-Goer and Yeoman Bed-Hanger.
If there was a title for the food taster, I haven’t found it. I suggest Yeoman I’m Not Sure That Tastes Right, Maybe I Should Have a Second Bite. Or Yeoman You Got Any Dessert to Go with That?
Don’t confuse the Yeomen of the Guard with the Yeoman Warders. The Warders still guard the Tower of London and the two uniforms are similar but the Warders wear a red cross belt that runs diagonally across the front of their tunics.
Damned if I know. Can we talk about something else?
Thanks. Let’s backtrack:
In 1794, Britain eyeballed the threat from revolutionary France and then eyeballed its military, which was a combination of draftees (you only had to serve if you couldn’t afford to pay for a substitute) and volunteers, and it decided the structure was too shaky for the weight a war was likely to put on it.
Its solution was to form volunteer units that would be subject to military discipline. More radically, when they were called out, they’d be paid. The cavalry units were to be recruited–at least theoretically–from yeoman farmers. They owned horses, after all, so there were halfway there. You didn’t expect the government to provide them, did you? Recruits also provided their own uniforms, but the government supplied their arms and ammunition.
Their officers were from the aristocracy or the gentry, because that was the natural order of things.
Those units became the yeomanry, or yeomanry cavalry, and they continued as a volunteer military force that could be called out in case of an invasion or to put down revolts. Because they were less than fully trained, they played a disastrous role in the Peterloo Massacre.
In 1907, they were merged into the Territorial Army. The Royal Yeomanry continues as a light cavalry force within the British Army Reserve.
The Royal Navy and Marines have the ranks yeoman of signals and chief yeoman of signals. They’re petty officers. None of that has much, if anything, to do with original meaning of the word except that they keep the sense of someone who’s not high up the ladder but who’s recognizably not on the bottom.
And finally, let’s come back to yeo-women. Women are now members of the Yeoman Warders, and they’re called yeomen. Ditto–and more interestingly–in the U.S. women became yeomen during World War I. The military had no entry points for women except an accidental one. The Naval Act of 1916 said the reserve force would include “all persons who may be capable of performing special useful service for coastal defense.”
Who’d have thought, when it was written, the a person might be a woman? So they left a loophole and women got through it. The military needed bodies, and the secretary of the Navy and the Bureau of Navigation (which translates into the personnel department) decided that nothing in the language kept women from enlisting in the reserves. In 1917 they started actively recruiting. Women became radio operators, stenographers, nurses, messengers, and chauffeurs, truck drivers, cryptographers, and mechanics.
Most of them were yeomen (F), meaning female yeomen.
Nobody had figured out what they were supposed to do for uniforms, though. Wearing anything other than a skirt or dress still lay outside the wildest official (and for the most part, unofficial) imagination, so they were given some money and some guidelines and told to find themselves something vaguely uniformish.
They had to find their own places to live as well.